Tom Atlee: On Power — What Kind, For Whom, For What — a Reflection on Moises Naim’s New Book, The End of Power

4 Star, Power (Pathologies & Utilization)
Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee

What kind of power, for whom, and for what?

In this article I explore current trends in the evolution of power that have profound implications for our future. This is an appreciative critical review of Moises Naim’s new book THE END OF POWER: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn't What It Used to Be. I describe Naim’s views on challenges to current power regimes and how to meet them – and then offer my own views on the upsurge of sustainable forms of power and how to support them.

Moises Naim’s new book THE END OF POWER: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn't What It Used to Be should properly be called “The Decay of Power”. His thesis is that while it is becoming easier to get power, it is also becoming harder to use it to control others and harder to keep it once you have it.

cover end of powerNaim suggests that globalization, economic growth, a growing global middle class, the spread of democracy, and rapidly expanding telecommunications technologies have changed our world. Together these developments have created a fluid and unpredictable environment which has unsettled the traditional dominions of power.

Three revolutions, he says, “make it more difficult to set up and defend the barriers to power that keep rivals at bay.” He details these revolutions as follows:
* “the More revolution, which is characterized by increases in everything from the number of countries to population size, standards of living, literacy rates, and quantity of products on the market”;
* “the Mobility revolution, which has set people, goods, money, ideas, and values moving at hitherto unimagined rates toward every corner of the planet”; and
* “the Mentality revolution, which reflects the major changes in mindsets, expectations, and aspirations that have accompanied these shifts.”

In other words, says Naim, there is too much going on, too much moving around, too many changing demands and perspectives – and at any time someone new can show up and effectively challenge or undermine your power. In addition, “when people are more numerous and living fuller lives, they become more difficult to regiment and control.” Among other things, such people value transparency, human rights, and fairness to women and minorities – and they share a sense that “things do not need to be as they have always been – that there is always…a better way” and that they need not “take any distribution of power for granted.”

All this is happening at the very time when large hierarchical institutions are losing their “economies of scale” and becoming increasingly difficult to manage, while smaller, more flexible organizations and networks are proving increasingly successful.

Naim provides compelling evidence that power is decaying in all these ways in all fields – from business, governance, geopolitics, and military affairs to religion, philanthropy, labor, and journalism.

Of course, decay is not the whole picture of what’s happening with power. Naim admits that centers of concentrated power are consolidating in every field. He notes that “the wealthy are accumulating enormous riches, and some are using money to gain political power…[a} trend as alarming as it is unacceptable”. He reminds us that “the same information technologies that empower average citizens have ushered in new avenues for surveillance, repression, and corporate control.” While he celebrates both the new limits on the powerful – “after all, power corrupts, doesn't it?” – and the blessings of broader access to power, that's not his focus.


The purpose of Naim's book is to highlight the problems associated with instability of power. He sees power as the primary organizing force in society. He believes that the loss of stable social power portends loss of social order and functional governance. “The more slippery power becomes, the more our lives become governed by short-term incentives and fears,” he claims, “and the less we can chart our actions and plan for the future.”

However, his analysis is unreasonably biased against the small powers (the “micropowers”) and towards the larger powers (the “megaplayers”). Here are some vivid examples:

* While noting that as more competing power centers emerge, it becomes harder to coherently address our collective problems and crises at every level – especially global issues like nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and climate change – he barely mentions the roles that concentrated economic, political and media power have played in generating those very problems.

* He bewails how “more and more ‘small' countries veto, foot-drag, demand special consideration, or generally undermine the efforts of the ‘big' nations in one area after another” but does not talk about how much the ‘big' nations block viable solutions being pushed by the ‘small' nations.

* He deplores the loss of skill and knowledge that so often accompanies the demise of major cultural, economic and political institutions, but doesn't note the destruction of cultural, biological and physical resources caused by the exploitive activities of corporations and governments (including the firing of experienced employees in profit-taking mergers and downsizing initiatives). Nor does he celebrate the mind-boggling new knowledge and capacity being created everyday by independent entrepreneurs and grassroots initiatives.

* He calls fringe demagogues and extremists “terrible simplifiers” who “seek power by exploiting the ire and frustration of the population and making appealing but ‘terribly simplified' and, ultimately, deceitful promises” – without acknowledging that this is the stock and trade of many mainstream governments, politicians, corporations, and other major political agents and economic actors as well.

* He warns of chaos and potential disaster as more destructive forms of power become increasingly available to smaller and smaller groups of people,* without noting that most of those destructive forms of power were created and have been used by dominant countries, militaries, and corporations.

* Naim also warns that the emerging micropowers “are not committed to the general good”. But he doesn't balance that concern with concern about the megaplayers who are just as likely to harm the general welfare. Governments, corporations, and other established powers have a long history of selfishness, exploitation, and destruction generating widespread suffering and disaster.


But I think the biggest shortcoming of Naim's otherwise excellent book lies not so much in its elite bias, but in its very foundation – his definition of power. He defines power in three related ways – “the capacity to get others to do, or stop doing, something”; “the ability to direct or prevent the current or future actions of other groups and individuals”; and “what we exercise over others that leads them to behave in ways they would not otherwise have behaved.” Within these definitions he sees four ways to get people to do what we want – coercion, moral codes, persuasion, and rewards.

These definitions lead him to some statements that seem odd to those of us who don't share his assumptions – for example, “the whole point of branding is to deter competition”. To me, it seems that the whole point of branding is to help consumers know what to expect from what they buy.

In my view Naim's definitions of power have two fundamental shortcomings that make his thesis gravely incomplete:

First, his power worldview is confined to what many of us would call “power-over” – the capacity to control, manage or dominate. It ignores other forms of power that become visible when we define power simply as “the ability to create effects”. These other forms of power include power-with (the power of cooperation), power-from-within (the power of spirit, belief and motivation), and power-from-among (the power of synergy and collective intelligence).

Second, Naim's power worldview is confined to the human realm – to social power. It does not acknowledge that there are other sources of and targets for power, notably nature. The power of nature – and our power relationships with nature – are central factors in our sustainability as a species.

Combined, these two defining limitations blind him and his readers to the role of power-over in generating the very problems he frets we won't be able to solve, like climate change. Self-interested and ideological efforts to dominate nature and people – largely through technologically enhanced economic, political, military and media power (power-over) that is now global – have produced most of our 21st century crises, from climate change and terrorism to resource depletion and economic meltdowns. Furthermore, these emerging crises may well disrupt the conditions – notably the rising global middle class, its mobility and aspirations – that have produced the power-limiting shifts he describes. On the other hand, those crises may also empower the “micropowers” because traditional power centers will lack resources (especially oil) that they need to maintain their global control, resulting in power devolving necessarily (if sometimes painfully) to more local levels where alternative economic and political forms have been evolving, often in more participatory directions.

His two defining limitations – blindness to the full varieties and sources of power – also blind him and his readers to the the role that the other forms of power have played, can play and are playing in creating a more functional and sustainable society. To the extent we practice and develop all these forms of power with people and in human systems – as well as in our interactions with nature and natural systems – we can nurture a self-organized social and natural order that has fewer toxic side effects than those associated with domination and control. Competent partnership skills in a partnership culture can make all the difference in the world.


It seems to me that Naim's solutions are designed primarily to help dominant powers function more benignly. He seems to believe that proper political participation needs to manifest “through more competitive political parties”. He sees participation as happening IN THE PARTIES rather than in society as a whole. He apparently considers the partisan battle for domination as the inevitable and proper form for participation in a democracy. This causes him to offer little insight into our immense and emerging potential for collaboration, common ground, co-creativity, and functional, “leaderful” self-organization, even across the traditional rifts that competitive power dynamics and institutions have bequeathed to us. Such dynamics are, to me, the most promising blessings of the decay of domination. But they are blessings we must work to earn.

In contrast, Naim says we need to develop more trust in our leaders and help political parties “regain the ability to inspire, energize and mobilize people – especially the young.” He suggests making political parties “more flat, less hierarchical” – but primarily to make them more able to “reach new members, become more agile, advance their agendas, and hopefully become better at fighting the terrible simplifiers that seek power inside and outside the party.” He frames leadership accountability, transparency and freedom from “dark or unknown interests” as issues of perception rather than substance. He suggests that political parties “need to elicit” in their followers “the feeling” that their party has integrity without describing how TRUE accountability should and could be established.

Naim tells us that “The exercise of power in any realm involves, fundamentally, the ability to impose and retain control over a country, a marketplace, a constituency, a population of adherents, a network of trade routes, and so on.” From that power-over perspective, the challenge of power is clear: “The task of governing, organizing, mobilizing, influencing, persuading, disciplining or repressing a large number of people with generally good standards of living requires different methods than those that worked for a smaller and less developed community.” That may be true enough for power elites, but is that where most of us want to go?


Ironically, many of the attempts to consolidate power are creating conditions for the decay of that power. Creating educated middle classes in developing countries to staff Western-style governments and corporations generates indigenous aspirations and capacities that lead to upstart challengers and revolutions. Vested interests' efforts to undermine national governments – from campaign contributions to trade agreements to war – generate populist protests and demands for greater local control. Tools created to enhance corporate collective intelligence get used by groups and communities to enhance their own collective capacities or to undermine centralized authorities. Weapons and civil rights designed to uphold elite privileges get claimed, adopted and used by marginalized populations.

I do not want to suggest that there is no role for power-over. There is much in life that requires control in order to be functional. However, power-over has greater potential for harm than the other forms of power. Much of its seeming efficiencies derive from its tendency to displace or “externalize” those harms and their costs onto other people or systems or into the future. For example, polluting companies externalize the harmful effects and expenses of their pollution onto communities, taxpayers, nature, and future generations, rather than paying the price to be clean.

For this reason, power-over should be practiced within – and constrained by – these more holistic forms of human potency, rather than the other way around. The answer is not simply, as Naim would have it, “to give more power to those who govern us,” but rather to expand and strengthen our ability to govern ourselves and to responsibly oversee those to whom we delegate some of our power.


It is these understandings that inspire more and more people – especially young people – to seek guidance from traditional forms of power that predate hierarchical industrial civilization. People are waking up to the more sustainable ways of early agricultural communities, indigenous cultures, and the self-organizing patterns of nature and evolution. These ways include competition and control, but usually in the context of partnership and spirit. Even science has evolved from the linear cause-effect perspectives of Newtonian physics and discredited dog-eat-dog versions of Darwinism toward more holistic, systemic, probabilistic worldviews of ecology, relativity, quantum physics, co-evolution, and emerging chaos and complexity theories grounded in the dynamics of interdependence.

It is on that newly understood and revitalized ancient common ground that people – especially young people – are beginning to use technologies (both old and new) to innovate forms of democracy based on active participation, co-creation, nonviolent action, citizen journalism, empathy, universal rights (including the rights of nature), transpartisanship, and high quality dialogue and deliberation. (This is especially significant considering, as the U.S. Intelligence Council notes, that “more than 80 states [i.e., countries] have populations with a median age of 25 years or less.”)

It is also on that revitalized ancient common ground that people – especially young people – are co-creating new economies based on simplicity, sustainability, equity, meeting deeper human needs, healthy “commons”, sharing, gifting, local exchanges, and producing “goods and services” themselves, together and for people they know and care about.

It is in this context that networking, crowd-sourcing, open-sourcing, peer-to-peer productivity, celebrations, and inclusive, powerful conversations and gatherings are unfolding – empowered by – but not limited to – emerging technologies.


While Naim touches briefly on these phenomena, his definition of power blinds him to their relevance: He rightfully sees the emerging “micropowers” as opposing, constraining and challenging what the big players can do – but fails to realize how many of these micropowers are actively creating the most potent solutions to our problems and the greatest realizations of our dreams. To miss this because one can only see social order arising from the power to “get others to do or stop doing” things is a tragedy of immense proportions.

On the other hand, those of us who see this bigger picture of what’s happening with power need to focus our attention on further empowering this new, grounded self-organizing capacity, making it as collectively wise as possible, and checking the efforts of dominant powers to undermine it. Because out of this will come the kind of society we want, since this new power regime empowers us all to co-create that society and to continually co-evolve it forever.

Naim almost sees this, but not quite. After stating that “today’s decay of power has yet to give birth to its own institutional responses: innovations in organizing public life that can allow us to enjoy the fulfillment and personal autonomy that hyper-diffuse power promises while staving off its very real, very dangerous threats,” Naim closes his book with this observation: “We are on the verge of a revolutionary wave of positive political and institutional innovations. As this book has shown, power is changing in so many arenas that it will be impossible to avoid important transformations in the way humanity organizes itself to make the decisions it needs to survive and progress…. Driven by the transformation in the acquisition, use, and retention of power, humanity must, and will, find new ways of governing itself.”

It seems he does not realize the deep truth of that prophetic summary, in ways more fundamental and profound than he has yet dreamed.

For my own conclusion, I want to highly recommend Moises Naim’s THE END OF POWER: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn't What It Used to Be for the gifts it gives clarifying one of the primary trends in the evolution of power. And I highly recommend thinking about it in the context of the many other evolutionary trends happening parallel to that – from the concentration of power and its use in consolidating future power to the grassroots explosion of innovations in life-centered economics and politics. We need to keep the whole picture in mind as we co-create the future we are living into, tacking with the wind as we keep our eyes up ahead on the world we want.


* I’m surprised that Naim does not highlight the dark sides of rapidly developing biotech, nanotech, robotics and computing power converging to empower small groups and even technologically adept individuals – as well as major institutions – to cause unprecedented catastrophe – on purpose or by accident. This possibility (or probability) was brought to public attention by techno-guru Bill Joy in his 2000 WIRED magazine essay “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.”  He pointed out that the capacity to create self-replicating entities that consume or toxify the environment – anything from virulent viruses to nanotech micro-robots – would probably spell the end of humanity. While some critics have dismissed his concerns, others have advocated tighter controls on technological development, while still others have advocated even greater transparency to rapidly crowdsource solutions to such developments. This debate is especially potent at highlighting both the upsides and downsides of technologically altered forms of power.

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