The inevitability of populism? A lesson from Moisés Naím

By on January 11, 2017

2016 has been a year with two major political earthquakes in the Western world: Brexit and the election of the real Donald Trump. The causes behind those events have been lingering for some time and have definitely not come to an end with key elections in Europe ahead in 2017.

Policy makers and academics have been swarming to understand, explain and address the phenomenon behind Brexit and Trump, generally referred to as the populist challenge. Unease with certain consequences of globalization on the account of the so-called losers of globalization, has been a consistent component of any analysis.

George Packer wrote strikingly in the New Yorker: “Populism is a stance and a rhetoric more than an ideology or a set of positions.” Indeed, it is a rather fluid phenomenon that incorporates intellectual indolence leading to simplifications and the supposition that there is a final solution, with a slight preference for personal leadership instead of the institutional balance of power.

However, as the persistent rise of populist forces in politics demonstrates, this understanding has not been sufficient in addressing the challenge in a satisfactory way. On the contrary, one can expect populism to play an even bigger role in the years to come. It is therefore worthwhile to try to expand our understanding of the concept.

A valuable contribution to the debate on the origins of contemporary populism (without directly referring to it) has been written by Moisés Naím, in his book ‘The End of Power’, published in 2013.

 

Decay of power through more, mobility and mentality revolutions

In his book, Naím describes how the concept of power transformed over the course of recent decades and how this has affected society as a whole. The starting point is power defined and organized according to Max Weber’s description. According to Weber, bureaucratic organization with detailed responsibilities, clear supervision, hierarchy and unity of command was the key to wield power. Likewise, the barriers to access power were proportionate to the level of power. In the previous centuries, this way of structuring power came to be introduced across all levels of Western society, giving rise to the great benefits (as well as the great tragedies) of the 20th century.

But gradually, writes Naím, this framework underpinning the concept of power started to crumble under the influence of three developments that he labels the more, the mobility and the mentality revolutions. Jointly, they resulted in the decay of power.

The more revolution implies that now, there is simply more of everything: people, countries, information, interests, political factions, money, goods, companies, weapons, students, computers, etc. But, writes Naím, “every one of the aforementioned advances points to glaring challenges and exceptions that often turn tragic.” In fact, all means of control that structure a society are overwhelmed by more and more numerous issues and more people that function at ever greater levels of ability. The more revolution has greatly diminished the sway of power and has simultaneously increased the number of contenders claiming a slice of any form of power. Hence, any exercise of power in any realm becomes harder to impose and retain.

Overall, the more revolution has increased the complexity of today’s world. This has created a situation where people, including politicians are forced to form an opinion on something that they do not and maybe even cannot apprehend, which makes the manifestation of ‘post-truth politics’, the Oxford Dictionary Word of 2016, understandable.

The second revolution that took place and significantly impeded power was the mobility revolution: jurisdictions, market boundaries, digital and physical borders have become more fluid and much easier to cross. This has resulted in urbanization, international migration, brain drain and a globalization of cultures, trade and information. The low threshold to connect to the digital community enables on the one hand anybody to easily consume and disseminate information but on the other hand makes anybody an easy target for manipulation. It is the mobility revolution that has simplified foreign interference in elections and empowered a social media spurred political debate. It is also the mobility revolution that has removed obstacles for (digital) contact between anybody from the bottom of the power pyramid and people on the top. This has greatly helped the more numerous contenders (as resulted from the more revolution) to challenge any authority.

Companies (and to a lesser extend citizens) can now also move their assets relatively easier from one place to another when they feel that the authority of the incumbent impairs them. But “Power needs a captive audience” and “when borders become porous and the governed more mobile and connected, entrenched organizations have a harder time retaining their dominance.” In sum, the ease of moving money or people and spreading information makes it more simple for challengers and harder for incumbents.

The third revolution revolves around the mentality and while being the most obvious and pervasive to propel populism, it is also the hardest one to conceptualize in an analytical framework.

The previous two revolutions have created the conditions for an interconnected global society whose members are well aware that others have even more prosperity than they do. As a result of the expansion of democracy, prosperity and access to education, almost endless social and technological opportunities came to be combined with a strong cultural emphasis on personal development. Consequently, people’s expectations have ballooned over the last three decades and this in turn has undermined the authority of incumbents and fueled the power of challengers, amplifying the decay of power. The increase in aspirational behaviour combined with unreasonable expectations derived from a delusive mental construction of reality forms an important aspect of contemporary populism. And for populist forces, expectations are of such significance that they often judge institutions of democratic governance not with respect to their constitutional role, but rather on what they seem to deliver on those expectations.

The three interrelated revolutions, that overlap with the definition of globalization, have had such a significant impact that Naím speaks of the decay or even the end of power. Barriers to power have been significantly lowered and micropowers are challenging the position of traditional powers. Albeit not exclusively, it is the area of politics that has been impacted most obviously: above, it is demonstrated that important aspects of contemporary populism can be traced back to or even evolve from the three revolutions. A more complex and interconnected world, where a mentality of not taking anything for granted reigns is fertile ground for anything to develop that we would associate with the stance or rhetoric of populism.

 

Conclusion

Rather than to replace other explanations for populism, generally revolving around inequality, the more generic concept of globalization or nationalist sentiments, Naíms original categorization of revolutions offers an additional viewpoint. The added value of Naíms approach is that it shows that several factors generating populism are in fact irreversible and come in parallel with very positive developments: the more and mobility revolutions flowing from technological progress as well as the advance of capitalism, and the mentality revolution as a consequence of the more and mobility revolutions together with democratization. The disturbing part of this is that populism seems like an indivisible by-product of modernization and merely neutralizing the negative consequences of globalization might not be enough.

In sum, when considering the three revolutions described by Moisés Naím in ‘The End of Power’, one can conclude that populism is not only about the so-called ‘losers of globalization’ exercising their democratic right. The inflexible law of the decay of power that works to the detriment of a social phenomenon (traditional power) rather than a social group (the losers of globalization), may bear more responsibility. In this sense, due to the ever advancing three revolutions, one cannot expect populism to disappear.

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