How do we solve our biggest problems when power and authority is dying?

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  • Philosophy
  • Social mobility

Moises Naim came to speak at the RSA last week. His thesis is that we are witnessing the ‘end of power’ or, at least, the end of concentrated and effective power as we used to know it. As he puts it: “power has become perishable, transient, evanescent”. He argues this is true not just of government but also business, religion and military affairs.

For Naim this shift has been driven by three revolutions which make it far harder for those in power to control the world and hence be effective.

  • The more revolution: there is just so much more happening and in existence today than there used to, from the size of the world population itself to the number of civil society organisations, making control from above impossible.
  • The mobility revolution: humans move around far more slipping out of the conventional territorial realms within which much power operates.
  • The mentality revolution: people increasingly just will not accept being told what to do by those in power.

I think the last is by far the most important, and as I’ve written elsewhere, is a trend that has been underway for at least the 350 years since Thomas Hobbes scandalously suggested that freedom was doing what you wanted to do rather than what God or the community told you to do.

Inevitably those in positions of power find this trend extremely troubling.  Like Naim, however, I think it is great. It is one more phase in the long liberation of humankind from the bondage of dominant, elite authority. I also think it is the historical underpinning of the drive to personal creativity that we at the RSA increasingly feel characterises so much of human endeavour today.

A Big Dilemma

But it does raise an enormous challenge that is yet to be resolved: in a world of diverse, creative and self-determined individuals positively hostile to authority and power, how do we address the big problems that require collective effort to solve?

For some this is a non-question. Those of a more libertarian persuasion are certain that everything (or nearly everything) can be solved by individuals coming to mutually beneficial arrangements that serve their own interests. I am convinced that much more can be achieved this way than is often admitted by those in power but there are some problems which require a degree of widespread co-operation and speed that is beyond the capacity of the market or similarly distributed system to deliver.  The most famous example of this is environmental degradation but many would argue that other problems such as poverty, inadequate economic infrastructure and public ill-health can never be fully or speedily addressed by distributed systems.

The alternative response is to reassert the co-ordinating power of the state, big business or civil society bodies to address these problems. But this overlooks Naim’s insight that we simply cannot return to those days. There are huge cultural, economic and political trends underway that render assertions of power ineffective and, often, counter-productive not least because they sooner or later encounter a popular backlash (witness, for example, the way the public debate on climate change has shifted in recent years as governmental regulation has been imposed).

Creative, Collaborative Solutions?

If there is an obvious solution to this dilemma I don’t know what it is. Given that so much public debate is still focused on the supposed solutions the state offers to our problems I am not sure anyone else has a clear solution or, indeed, has even acknowledged the dilemma.

What I do know is that we have to find a way of generating solutions to collective action problems that are not imposed from above but emerge instead out of a process of creative collaboration. At one level we are getting much better at doing this: witness, for example, new creative and collaborative approaches to disaster relief or supporting the most vulnerable people. But we have yet to step up to meet the really big collective action challenges such as climate change or infrastructure development in a way that feels better suited to the era of the ‘end of power’.

Time for some very hard thinking here at the RSA and elsewhere.


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  • Ha this is not the end of power. If anything we're barely on the cusp of it, or moving towards tighter controls. Most of us still pay a large majority of our lives and energy, via taxes, to centralized governments run by small groups of corrupt politicians and businessmen, who use this money for their own personal gain. People are trying to break free but at the same time the small amount of people who run the world are continuing to tighten their grip through financial means, like the world bank, psychological tactics such as fear from terrorism and marketing schemes, and centralization of everything through massive corporations. We need new political and economic systems that rely more on distributed power. However, it will be bet, very hard to rip the power away from those privileged few already controlling the world.

  • I think this is related to what used to be called the 'Death of Deference' (ie to established authorities) and is partially a result of perceived violation of trust by those whose job it is to make everything OK for the lay citizen. A related trend at the individual level is the ubiquitous use of similarity or identification as a proxy for trust, whereby those faced with a decision seek and accept advice from others who appear to be like them (eg, members of an invisible online community) and whose behaviours suggest they are sympathetic to the decision-maker's needs and therefore somehow equipped to advise.

  • As a teacher I find the implications for this in education challenging. I work in an inner city school and attempting to educate a student body openly hostile to authority with parents who are in many cases just as hostile is the biggest hurdle to success

  • I don't claim the Antimatter Principle is an *obvious* solution, but I do propose it as one possible solution to the dilemmas you describe hereabove.

    - Bob

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