Tag Archives: Hobbes

A First Note on Naim’s End of Power

I didn’t read Moises Naim’s The End of Power when it was fashionable to do so a couple of years ago, after Mark Zuckerberg put the book on his recommended reading list. In fact, I am so unfashionable that I hadn’t heard of the book until yesterday, when I came across a reference to it in an article in El Pais and was intrigued enough to download a Kindle sample chapter (the local bookstore didn’t have a copy I could look over). I plan to continue with it, mainly to see what Naim has to say about cooperation, co-deliberation and joint commitment — themes I’ve been exploring in my posts on the power of asking.

So far, not much. Naim tends to present deliberation as a dissolution of power, instead of appreciating that there is power in it. He wants to remind us that the decay of power he’s documenting in this book can lead to stalemates and “ineffectiveness”; but he risks going too far in the other direction:

A world where players have enough power to block everyone else’s initiative but no one has the power to impose its preferred course of action is a world where decisions are not taken, taken too late, or watered down to the point of ineffectiveness.

There is not much patience in these opening pages for gathering as equals and talking things over, little appreciation that taking decisions together can be something other than head-butting, very little room at all here for co-deliberation (in the course of which players might veer, or would be open to veering, from their preferred course and adopt another course). It’s a world without much charity. Conversation and coordination with others — yielding or deferring to them — just delays or creates obstacles to action. Effectiveness is all. Order is a necessary and one-way imposition, for Naim, and the quicker order is imposed, the better. A world in which “no one has the power to impose” upon others, he warns, threatens to collapse into “chaos and anarchy.”

This, I gather, is one of the main arguments of The End of Power. The trouble I’m starting to have with it has to do with Naim’s Hobbesian view of things and his definition of power: “Power is the ability to direct or prevent current or future actions of other groups and individuals.” Look at those verbs. Power directs and prevents others: command and control. Or, look at the preposition Robert Dahl uses when he defines power in “The Concept of Power,” a paper Naim cites approvingly: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.”

Even in that sentence there is much to unpack, and, as I say, I’ve just cracked the book. But I am wondering if in subsequent chapters Naim will offer any consideration of power that is not power over others but power with them.

Hypothetical Frogs

Over the holiday weekend I came across a reference to W.D. Hamilton’s “Geometry for the Selfish Herd” — which is apparently a classic in theoretical biology and the theory of animal aggregation.

Published in the 70s, the article makes the case that animals are gregarious to reduce their “domain of danger”: in other words, they group together, and organize themselves within groups, for self-preservation, not for altruistic reasons or for the sake of good company.

For Hamilton, being social means watching out for your own self interest.

Extending Hamilton’s observations on the grouping of frogs around a lily pond to the human world is tempting, but not so easy. Krugman isn’t satisfied with being Hamiltonian about economics; he calls the hypothesis of the frogs around the pond a “useful fiction” of evolutionary theory, and warns against allowing such fictions to dominate our thinking or to be mistaken for “deep-seated truths”.

The same would have to be said for extending Hamilton’s model of gregarious behavior to human covenants and compacts or to other questions of social organization, or to discussions of the origins of cities, or to accounts of moral action — e.g., altruistic practices or demonstrations of selflessness. Tempting, but ultimately a stretch.

Hamilton discovers Hobbes through evolutionary genetics and mathematical models; but is Hamilton’s evolutionary theory really any more “useful” than other fictions — e.g., ancient fictions about how orators first brought human beings together by persuasion, or accounts of benevolent despots who ordered people into cities?

Of course it’s worth discussing how “social” and “altruistic” arrangements (as well as theories of altruism) often disguise or disclose the power of self-interest; and Hamilton’s observations about the privileged “center” of an aggregate might inform further thinking about social ideas of status and power.

But ultimately it may be a question not of math or science, but of what stories we choose to tell about ourselves, and why.