We are entering a period where the social structures and mechanisms that have channeled and controlled power for the past few hundred years are shifting radically. In The End of Power, Venezuelan politician and former director of the World Bank, Moisés Naím, describes some serious ways in which the systems we have lived under for the past 50 years are becoming deeply unstable. In Europe and in the US, the political parties that have ruled nations since the end of World War II are crumbling before our eyes; dominant military forces are increasingly challenged by and unable to control small non-state actors; and small new companies are emerging with incredibly rapidity while older ones, once seen as the bedrocks of capitalism, sometimes crumble overnight.
The End of Power
Naím argues that three deep social transformations have undermined old barriers to new forces gaining power. He calls these transformations more, mobility and mentality. The fact that there are many more of us than there used to be has led to systems of control being overwhelmed. There are more people in the world, who are generally living longer and doing better than in past times. This is leading people all around the world to have rising expectations. “When people are more numerous and living fuller lives, they become more difficult to regimen and control,” he writes.
What Naím aptly describes is more like a destabilization of old structures and a shifting of power.
With mobility, cultures are being disrupted by mass migration. Where in prior years there was a pervasive problem of “brain drain,” as educated people left countries of the global South and took their expensive educations with them, increasingly there is a “brain circulation,” where those people are returning to their countries of origin and bringing with them new ideas and access to capital. Ideals of how it is possible to live circulate freely, and information about possible solutions to problems also circulate with increasing freedom and speed. With the mentality revolution, people all around the world, and especially young people, are thinking for themselves and questioning the traditional expectations of their societies.
The Transnational Ruling Class
While Naím argues that what is happening is an end to power, what he aptly describes is more like a destabilization of old structures and a shifting of power. In terms of culture, Naím sees the undermining of traditional cultures in almost entirely positive terms, as an unleashing of people’s senses of possibility. But of course, along with the undermining of traditional cultures comes the spreading of capitalist forms of culture, and that can be seen as the spread of newer forms of power as much as it can be seen as the undermining of old ones.
Naím’s book can be seen as an elegy for what sociologist William Robinson calls the “transnational ruling class.” From the end of World War II until very recently, it looked to careful observers as if the Group of 5, the Group of 20, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were able to control the rules under which the economies of the world functioned. And their power was so great that any national government that wanted to do things according to a different set of rules would be denied access to the capital needed to keep its economy flowing, and pressured until it played the political and economic games by the rules those at the top of these institutions required. Thus, that transnational ruling class had enormous power over both economic and political systems.
Robinson argues that the last part of the 20th century was characterized by a system of polyarchy, where power came to transcend national governments, and instead rested in the hands of the transnational ruling class and its governing institutions. He argues that national elections became not as significant as they once had been as mechanisms for deciding how a group of people chose to live.
The Power to Control Greece
We can see this problem in action in the dramatic situation faced by the government of Greece in the summer of 2015. Prior to the US financial bubble bursting in 2008, Goldman Sachs and others had pressured a corrupt Greek government into taking out a set of very unsustainable loans. Transnational institutions pressured the Greek people to make good on the loans.
The power of capitalist processes to destroy people’s lives is as powerful as ever.
The Greek government fell, and was replaced by a left-wing government led by what had been until that time a tiny and obscure party, Syriza. Syriza’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras came to power on a platform of rejecting the loans as illegitimate. The European Central Bank insisted that Greece not default. What followed was a very dramatic set of moves that showed how little power the people of Greece had over their political and economic futures.
Tsipras considered the loans to be illegitimate and unpayable. German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble insisted on Greece’s repayment, and threatened to cut off all capital to Greece if the country didn’t pay up. Schäuble famously said that “elections change nothing.” He led the charge of the European Central Bank in insisting that Greece squeeze more capital out of its economy by cutting pensions, raising taxes and selling off national assets.
National governments are officially in charge of what happens in their territory. But increasingly, since the second half of the 20th century, governments have been under tremendous pressure to follow the rules set by transnational institutions. Those institutions see their job as making the world safe for the routine profit making and liberty of the world’s major multinational corporations.
The Instability of Capitalism
And yet, Naím is partially right. We do seem to be entering a period in which the ability of the transnational ruling class to provide an orderly atmosphere for those interests to operate is crumbling. But the system of capitalism, which those institutions work to manage, continues on its merry way. The power of capitalist processes to destroy people’s lives is as powerful as ever.
Rather than being in a period of an end to power, we are in yet another period of an unmooring of power.
What has changed is that those capitalist processes are less able to be managed by a cohesive transnational ruling class, and they are less accountable to any particular regime of control. That is largely a result of finance capital coming to dominate over the more productive forms of capital that had previously been dominant, and a result of the neoliberal policies of those very transnational institutions that have spread an ideology of laissez faire.
The power of individuals at the heads of major corporations, or at the heads of transnational institutions, does seem to be destabilizing. The forms of power that Naím and people like him have held in the past century — the power as heads of corporations, as people in government and as people at the head of transnational organizations — is shifting, and those people can no longer feel secure in their ability make things happen.
And yet for the rest of us, it is still the case that transnational capitalist processes rule our world. They are just ruling in a less orderly fashion. And whereas Robinson, the sociologist, sees the transnational ruling class anchored in institutions such as the World Trade Organization and World Bank as the rulers of this new world order, it may be that Naím is right — that even those forms of governance over the capitalist systems are losing their grip on power.
Rather than meaning that we are in a world beyond power, perhaps it is all simply part of the cyclical and unstable nature of capitalism. In Marx and Engels’ 1848 Communist Manifesto, the authors highlight the ways that, as economic processes spread to allow for the free flow of capital to wherever it is likely to get the greatest return, there goes with that a tremendous destabilization of society, along with intermittent attempts to manage the ensuing chaos. In one of the most oft-quoted passages in the Manifesto, they write:
Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.
Rather than being in a period of an end to power, we are in yet another period of an unmooring of power. The old systems that have managed collective decision making in the near past have been undermined. If we are to challenge dominating forms of power in the present circumstances, we need to look to ways to hold those powers accountable. And our understanding of the forces we are up against needs to be cognizant of the real powers that exist in capitalist processes, and other processes of domination.