Early in my life I was drawn to power to impose my ideas onto the world. It was only natural to believe leaders were able to change organizations, businesses or even geopolitics to their whim. But I found my implicit sense of power was entirely wrong. There is a tradeoff between authority and influence. Leadership becomes a trap where it is limited in its options by those who are supposedly led. Managers make concessions to their workers to maintain a productive atmosphere.
I worked in politics after I graduated college because I thought it offered an opportunity to shape political strategy. But I quickly realized I had lost significant influence because I was on the payroll. I had traded influence for a paycheck. The true leaders purchased their influence through the donation of their time and money. My time was never donated. It was compensated.
Today I am a manager of a small business unit. There is a lot of autonomy. I was tasked with the assembly of a small team that I trained and taught. Yet despite these advantages, authority is limited. Decisions are often negotiated with or delegated to a team. Managers obsess about employee retention because it is synonymous with productivity. Employers are challenged to accommodate employees who have increasing leverage within the workplace.
My life experience runs counter to Robert Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy. It is far more sympathetic to Moisés Naím’s thesis in The End of Power. Naím argues power has eroded through the More, Mobility and Mentality Revolutions. The More Revolution refers to the proliferation of people, information, things, wealth, etc. The Mobility Revolution refers to the capacity for people to change or leave situations. Finally, the Mentality Revolution has encouraged people to question sources of authority. Naím argues these three revolutions have overwhelmed, abandoned and undermined those in power.
Naím does not argue leaders are powerless. Rather he makes the case their power has gradually become more limited than ever before. This becomes a celebration of the individual and a warning of a zeitgeist which has the capacity to undermine the fundamental social compact. But sometimes the book feels outdated like where he refers to the proliferation of democracy. The past six years have not been favorable to democracy with the rise of populist leaders with authoritarian tendencies.
The election of Donald Trump represents the rise of another authoritarian leader brought to power through democratic means. And he is not alone. Viktor Orbán is the Prime Minister in Hungary. Jair Bolsonaro was elected President in Brazil. Narendra Modi has led his party to India’s first non-coalition government in thirty years. It undermines Naím’s belief that people want less authority. Indeed, Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa have shown people have grown increasingly disappointed with democracy.
Yet the election of Donald Trump also may ultimately support Naím’s thesis. He has worked to dismantle or weaken liberal institutions. His presidency represents a reduction in the power of government to hold its leaders accountable. Recently, Trump pardoned several business leaders and politicians who were guilty of corruption including Rod Blagojevich. Earlier he had interfered in the punishment of the Navy Seal Chief Edward Gallagher who was accused of murder in Afghanistan. The description of his misdeeds was so heinous many felt they amounted to war crimes.
Indeed, Trump has expressed his power through the destruction of the institutions that were the foundation of American power. He has taken efforts to disrupt the Justice Department after the Senate had acquitted him in an impeachment trial. He has a natural antipathy to the rule of law. There is an implicit reevaluation of morals where anyone seems to have the right, indeed the expectation, to act solely in their own interests. It harkens back to Nietzsche’s Will to Power. Individualism has been championed as a form of liberation from authority, but Friedrich Nietzsche demonstrated how radical individualism leads to tyranny. It is unlikely Trump has glanced at Nietzsche’s works, but he seems to have internalized this dangerous philosophy.
The work parallels Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man. Like Fukuyama, Naím offers incredible intellectual breadth and experience for the reader. His ideas are compelling and timely. Yet his ideas fail to capture the nuance of his subject. Naím fails to capture the competing narrative that threatens to emerge at any moment. History offers many moments where power gradually declined. But power has always found ways to reemerge. Naím fails to recognize how the centralization of authority was largely a feature of modernization. The Ancien Régime balanced the power of the monarch against aristocrats who had a firmer grasp on local control. Modernization brought about new tools that allowed monarchs to centralize greater authority and control. But the forces of modernization also conferred a new sense of dignity and respect to individuals. Traditional institutions were torn down as new ones emerged. For example, capitalism represented a divorce between economic and political power. It was a decentralization of power that allowed new leaders to emerge outside of political leadership.
A deep analysis of power requires an intimate understanding of institutions. Naím sees a transformation in the way institutions function. Yet there is a consistency in the way institutions have always functioned. Institutions are the context where human relationships are established. Institutions establish not just sources of authority for some but also sources of equality among others. Identities are established through the roles each person occupies within institutions. But the number of institutions has expanded. This has transformed the individual’s sense of their own identity. Some institutions have evolved while others have collapsed through this gradual evolution. Power does face challenges as new institutions continue to emerge that lead to new sources of identity.
Ultimately, Naím offers a thought-provoking work that all leaders should take the time to read. But its insights simply capture a moment in history. There is a greater theoretical framework which is largely missing within the work. There is more for us to understand about power. It is my belief any discussion of power must understand the evolution of institutions. Émile Durkheim wrote about the sociological consequences of the emergence of capitalism in the early twentieth century. It is only natural these forces have continued to evolve and change the society around us.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com
Follow me on Twitter @DemParadox
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