The nature of power has changed irrevocably in the 21st Century.
No single person or entity is able to exercise complete control over a country and its population without being held accountable by lobby groups, activists, opposition parties and businesses.
Moisés Naím, an economist who has been Venezuela’s trade and industry minister and editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, argues that all types of power – whether it is military, political, corporate or religious – has found it harder to retain authority as increasingly complex problems weaken institutional dominance.
In his latest book, The End of Power, Mr Naím presents his thesis on how power is decaying and shifting in many different ways and how the state behemoth has crumbled to be replaced by small, agile start-ups.
Nowhere is this more applicable than the countries of the Arab world, where revolutions have shown that dictators and autocrats have no place in modern society.
Rebel Economy spoke to Mr Naím about why power is harder to keep hold of and why the countries of the Arab Spring only experienced their revolutions in the last three years, while other dictatorships fell in other countries decades before?
Moisés Naím: The world over, power no longer buys as much as it used to. It has become easier to get, but harder to use and far easier to lose. We see examples of this everywhere as insurgents, fringe political parties, innovative start-ups, loosely organized activists, upstart citizen media outlets, leaderless young people in city squares, and charismatic individuals – micropowers – are upending the old world order. It’s as evident in the story of a lone American hacker who provokes a standoff between two powerful governments as it is in the masses of Brazilians who take to the streets in protest against increasing bus fares. What were once little known, negligible actors are increasingly capable of undermining and thwarting the traditional power-holders.
Power is undergoing a fundamental mutation that needs to be understood through the deeper transformations in how, where, how long, and how well we live. Our population is nearing the seven billion mark and greater numbers of people are raised out of poverty into the middle class every day. On the whole, people are living increasingly better lives. They’re traveling more, communicating more, and are demanding more than their now-weakened governments can provide.
Now, as to why the countries of the Arab Spring only experienced this in the past three years, I can only reference the fact that no experts have been able to predict the fall of a regime. It didn’t happen with the Iranian shah was deposed. Nobody predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, and in general, though people may speculate about regimes becoming weaker, nobody knows when they’ll fall.
Mr Naím lays out his key arguments in this TEDTalk:
In Egypt, the mandate on which political rulers work is getting much narrower, and this was used as ammunition against the former president, Mohammed Morsi who was overthrown. Will there be such thing as a landslide in the next elections in Egypt? Why is it harder to gain the popular majority?
MN: One needs to start with the premise that elections are carried out on a level playing field where each candidate and each party has the same chances and resources, that the government refrains from meddling, that public resources are not used to support a specific candidate, and that the election is impartial, objective and competitive. All of this may be an heroic assumption for Egypt. But it’s what any Egyptian that wants a free and democratic nation ought to fight for.
If there are elections in Egypt, what we do know is that this is a deeply polarized, deeply divided society. Perhaps it is even becoming a “normal” democracy, and sadly as we’ve seen, in today’s world “normal” democracies, are those where landslides are very rare and fragmented politics are the norm .
Your book also draws on the idea that the barriers that shielded and protected power are falling, for instance money, charisma, property rights and control of exclusive assets. But for countries in the Arab Spring, including Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, there is still a long way to go before governments will cede control to other institutions. Is this going to be a hindrance for the success of those countries’ revolutions?
MN: In fact, what we have seen in North African countries is that governments are having a hard time retaining control. Ben Ali, Qaddafi, Mubarak and others did not voluntarily cede power, but were forced to abandon it. This shows that there are forces at work limiting the ability of governments to retain command.
The central message is not that governments have no power, but that power is harder to use and maintain over long periods of time. The leaders of the regimes that have succeeded the long entrenched dictators may have fallen into the temptation of following some of their authoritarian practices. But what we have seen in Egypt is that it’s no longer easy to be a dictator these days.
You foresee a reorganisation of power, which will no longer be top-down and rigid but messy, sprawling and driven by the attempt to acquire power by many.
Egypt is no doubt going through a “messy” transition, which was most recently driven by the military’s overthrow of the Islamist government. But there is a debate about whether this was a military coup, or a popular revolution. Is this internal tension an example of what you see as the future of democracy-building, or are there simply too many actors vying for power and stopping any transition in its tracks?
MN: There is no doubt that Egypt has reached a delicate situation and it is at a critical juncture. And yes, Egypt’s political system is now full of actors with some power to influence the state of affairs. But nobody has the power to dominate the situation and unilaterally determine outcomes or impose its will on others—not even the military.
Rules for governance need to be reshaped and sharpened. There needs to be broad accord on how decisions are made, power is shared, government kept accountable, and elections remain free and fair. Space must be made for outside opinions to be heard. Excessive flexing of power needs to be curbed. But remember, a democracy is not only what happens the day of the election. What happens in the period between elections is just as important.