Power is leaching from the center, even as the complexities of national and international challenges multiply. It is the hallmark of our times. Whether political or religious leaders, chief executives or five star generals — all are more constrained in what they can do.
This is a pattern across all societies. The digital age, globalization and higher levels of education have equipped more people to become insurgents or to form single issue pressure groups. It is a world where the opportunities to be a Julian Assange, Beppe Grillo, Osama bin Laden, George Soros or Nigel Farage grow by the day. Power is draining away from those in whom it is formally placed, but with no obvious substitute in sight.
As Moises Naim writes in The End of Power, there are three interrelated dynamics gnawing away at formal power structures — what he calls “the more revolution, the mobility revolution and the mentality revolution.”
There are more literate, educated people worldwide than ever before who refuse to be regimented and controlled as they once were. They are mobile, migrating and exchanging information to an unparalleled degree. Moreover, fewer will take anything for granted: They expect their voice to be heard, whether on the streets of Cairo, on social media in China or in anti-fracking protests in Sussex, England.
Naim is the first to concede that the dispersion of power is frequently a force for good. One obvious benefit is that autocracy is on the wane. In 1989, democracy advocacy non-governmental organization (NGO) Freedom House reckoned that only 69 countries could be counted as democracies: today, the number has reached 117.
It is also good that the chances of mass war on a 20th century scale are shrinking: In a world of declining power, war is won differently today. It is the fast-moving insurgent who can capture hearts and minds or the terrorist cyberhacker who ends up ahead.
However, as Naim wryly remarks, the decay of power undermines even the insurgent terrorist groups themselves. He reports that 26 of 45 terrorist organizations dissolved, not from being beaten militarily, but from internal strife and challenge. Al-Qaeda’s greatest weakness is its own factionalization, as will be the Taliban’s.
It is this tendency to fragmentation and the chorus of often irrational voices insisting that their demands be met that most concerns Naim. It may be easier to establish a single-issue NGO, a religious movement or a political faction, but that does not mean that the consequences are necessarily always beneficial.
There is now certainly hyper-competition from new religious groups, or from blogs, tweets and Web sites trying to sway your opinion. However, the consequences can be perverse. The rise of charismatic religion may challenge centralized, formerly powerful religious groupings that have lost their way, such as Catholicism, under increasing siege from the rise of Pentecostal churches in Africa and South America. However, religious fundamentalism’s grip on logic and rationality is even more tenuous.
Similarly, millions of blogs and tweets have forced news consumers to fall back on trusted, established sources, aiding media concentration rather than diminishing it.
However, the “more, mobility and mentality revolutions” have their most obvious malign impact on politics in general and the political party in particular. Naim observes that parties are the engine room of democracies: They gather a constellation of interest groups around a common set of principles that offer a compass for government. Everywhere, political parties are succumbing to the rise of uncompromising single-issue pressure groups, lobbyists and funders, and the corresponding decline of supporters who want common values expressed. It is now not just parties, but whole countries that are held to ransom by a faction or interest group holding a simplified, but impossible view of the world — Naim’s “terrible simplifiers.”