How would you define power?
It's the ability of person, institution, or groups of institutions to make others do or stop doing something, now, or in the future.
How did your book The End of Power come about?
It started with an intuition. I was the Minister for Trade and Industry in my country and often people would come to me and ask me or the government to do certain things. I realised that even if what they were asking for was right, the government was so constrained, that they could not do it. I thought it was a situation specific to that time in the country. After that though, I joined the World Bank and part of the job was to talk to Heads of State and ministers and when we'd discuss what needed to be done the country, they'd look at me with that same feeling of impotence that I felt when I was a minister. This was in the mid 90s. This is when I realised that my intuition about power becoming increasingly constrained was more universal and I started studying it further.
Why do you say that power isn't what it used to be?
Power has become easier to obtain, much harder to use and easier to lose. I'm not saying that there aren't very powerful individuals and institutions. The Pentagon, the President of China and the Google CEO are all very powerful even today. However, the power they have is more constrained when compared to their predecessors in that position. For example, compare the President of China today to his predecessor in the 90s who launched the massive economic reforms that changed the country. It is almost unimaginable that the President of China would be able to launch such widespread systemic changes today.
How does this change impact people?
There are plenty of reasons to welcome these changes. It was to do with life becoming harder for monopolists and dictators - people who have concentrated powers. I've gathered a lot of data for this book as while writing the book, I was aware that I was making assertions that were going against the grain when I said that power is becoming more constrained than ever. I felt that I needed to rely on a lot of data and the best possible social science and modern thinking available. So there are plenty of examples to show that the power of dictators, monopolists, even the heads of criminal cartels is reducing. It's not that they don't have power, but it is lessening, and the numbers show that.
What's causing these changes in the power structure?
Essentially, the powerful always have something - an asset or characteristic - that shields them from rivals and challengers. Political parties have their followers, companies have their assets and sales, an army has its soldiers and sophisticated weaponry, something that gives you power. All of these are barriers that shield the powerful, and they are no longer as protective. They are being eroded by three revolutions - the more, mobility and mentality revolutions.
We live in a world of profusion, we have more of everything. More people who are better educated, better off financially compared to a few decades ago. And this makes it hard as it's not as easy to control 100 million people as it was to control 10,000. The second issue is mobility. Everything moves faster, not just people, but also ideas and money. Power succeeds when it has a captive audience; places where it is wielded have clear limits and borders. Finally, there is a profound change in values and expectations and behaviours that are present everywhere in the world.
So the more revolution overwhelms the barriers that protect the powerful, the mobility revolutions helps circumvent the barriers and the mentality revolution undermines them. People no longer take things for granted or blindly follow orders anymore.
Any examples you could share that illustrate this shift and the end of power?
Think about Kodak. For many years it dominated the photography markets globally. Last year, at the same time it was filing for bankruptcy, a two-year old app with 13 employees was sold for a billion dollars. This was Instagram. I am not saying one was responsible for the other; Kodak failed because of bad management. But it's interesting that it happened at the same time.
In the realm of war, think about Somali pirates. These people go out in rickety boats with old machine guns and they are able to hijack the biggest vessels in the world today. The world has reacted by deploying some of the most sophisticated fleets in those waters. Everyone is patrolling those waters to stop the pirates and they have not been able to do it. The pirates continue to hijack the ships in the high seas. Or think of the Taliban taking on the Pentagon, one of the most powerful institutions in the world, or even how newer religions are challenging the older established ones. There are a lot of places where you can see this happening.
What lessons does this hold for those in power?
First, pay as much attention to your peripheral vision as to your central vision. Your competitors are likely to come from places that you are not looking at. For instance, Kodak wasn't looking at Instagram to capture this aspect of photography. There is hyper competition in the world today and you have to be very good at what you do. To do so you have to be almost obsessive about what you do, but doing that is also very dangerous because it means that you aren't looking at your periphery and that's where your competitor can come from.
Also, size no longer ensures staying power. You can be very large and still go out of business in no time. The third is that because there is so much proliferation and fragmentation, different constituencies have enough power to block the others but no group has enough power to push an agenda through. We see that in so many democracies around the world where decisions are delayed because of the different power centres. This is visible in companies too where different groups of shareholders, management factions, activist shareholders or workers unions all have a way of blocking decisions, but not enough power to call the shots and define the strategy. That's a big danger going forward.