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The political world is going hyper (dash) MMM, and responding with demagogues..what is going on?
on 25 February 2016
If you ignore the headline grabbing title, a more accurate description might be the hyper (dash) diffusion of power, its ephemerality and the gridlock metastasis that accompanies 'vetocracies' (Fukuyama). But I doubt this would carry the sound bite as well...
A rhetorical device used by Naim, an ex-development minister in the Venezuelan government, is the line that "things are not what they used to be", mostly observed through his conversations with other world leaders during his time in office. This raises a question in my mind: were the expectations of Naim and his peers ever valid, or in the immortal words of Morrissey, "Oh has the world changed, or have I changed?". A strong case is made for the intertwined behemoth worlds of centralised modern organisations (bureaucracies) and governments constrained by a "golden straight-jacket of laissez faire rules (so investors don't stampede away) and a spectrum of "politics shrinking to tight parameters". We are living in an age where traditional parties are fragmented, and distinguished, not ideologically, but by charismatic personalities and media prowess. A leading contender for President of the most powerful nation on the planet is a self-proclaimed business mogul with no credible governmental experience of policy making. In explaining why the US may have reached this critical juncture, The End Of Power (2013) proves remarkably prescient, and offers a compelling set of conclusions.
But let's start with the real essence of Naim's analysis. What is power?
With the help of a break-down of "power's social function to organise the primal" (Hobbes) he adapts Professor MacMillan's Taxonomy of coercion, inducement, obligatory authority and persuasive influence in the context of favourable or unfavourable situations. To explain - muscle and code are often used most effectively to go against someone's wishes, while incentive and charisma reframe someone's preferences towards a more positive feeling (cf. Aesop's fable of the North Wind and the Sun). Taken to its logical extreme the framework has enough latitude to lead to oppression, corruption, ideological brain washing or verbal bashing populism. But within the norms of a liberal democracy and legal tactics of game playing, the art of securing one's own stake may involve some combination of pressure, reward, legal contract and persuasion in obtaining the upper hand. Therefore, depending upon the openness, transparency and consistency of the environment (cf. Somalia with Denmark for instance) an average day's engagement in exposure and image cultivation in the West might involve 'putting across' one's will, laying an enticement, applying a code of conduct, or just being damn charming! However somewhere hidden in the murky world of political hegemony lies the United States's capacity to wield "its will on others through spying on allies, turning a blind eye to corruption and abuse in client states, backroom deals with neutral countries, and lobbying for interest groups."
Having exposed the practicalities of effective alpha influencers or aggressors, depending on their modus operandi, Naim then posits that barriers to entry have for the most part existed to obstruct the political newcomer (e.g. G8 and EU) and business competitor through the practices of strategic collusion (seeking oligarchies or political alliances) and structural exclusion: "the more numerous and stringent the regulations, the higher the costs of replicating the incumbents' advantages; and the more restricted or rare the key assets" - the higher the transaction costs (Coase) for new players, be it in acting as the world's policeman or building a jet engine from scratch.
However doom-laden for a mega-player or potentially liberating for a change agent, the End of Power's key strategic point is that the once impregnable positions held by dominant nations and corporations are being undermined by three cultural shifts that have arisen out of a greater access to 'soft power' strategies (Nye) of culture and ideas due to a combination of technological innovation and the coming to pass of McLuhan's 'global village': Moreism, i.e. increase in sovereign states (almost 200 and counting), population explosion, higher literacy rates and consumerism; the Mobilism of money, goods, people, ideas and values; and a new Mentalism from the infectious transmission of expectations and aspirations by the small players, and nonstate actors (NSAs) in geopolitics.
It cannot help go unnoticed that these trends reflect a previous historical period which exhibited the rise of industrialisation, globalisation and mass migration in the late 19th century (Niall Ferguson, The Times 28.02.16). But in the information age the effects of MMM can be summed up as follows:
- 'swamping': when people are more numerous and living fuller lives, they become more difficult to regiment and control in market segments.
- 'circumventing' once captive markets, for example migrant remittances.
- 'brain circulation' where migrants skill up and then return home to create new technological ventures in sometimes unlikely locations;
- 'falling transaction costs' in moving goods, money, people and information;
- the rise of 'disintermediating' forums and platforms that are less hierarchical and corrupted with a clearer mission, and closer ties to members, e.g. NGOs, bloggerspheres;
- the 'undercutting' of authoritarianism with new expectations of aspiration: "there is always, somewhere and somehow, a better way";
- new 'coalitions of the willing': alliances with side deals and bilateral agreements out of the multitude of international treaties, supplemented by a new internationalisation of companies based in less prosperous countries.
A strong tenet of Naim's argument is that the move away from extreme concentration (tyranny or monopoly of sustaining technologies) on the left of the inverted 'U' curve towards extreme diffusion (anarchy or the creative destruction of perfect competition and innovative disruption) carries a number of penalties for democracy. These are:
- 'disorder', from an instability of concentration practices (i.e. regulations, laws, ballots and treaties);
- 'de-skilling' of intellectual capital with a loss of knowledge from large organisational reservoirs;
- 'banalization' of social movements as 'likes' or button touches becomes a low risk contribution to political change diverting resources from conventional practices - it is argued that this will further exacerbate the "collective action problem" of 'slacktivism' (Morozov);
- 'hyper (dash) competitive noise' shortens attention spans leading to more living in the moment with its deleterious affect to civic and political activism;
- 'vetocractic governance': the pressure of "interference" via vetoes, foot-dragging, diversions, often aided through radical transparancy reforms.
- easy facilitation of 'ignorance and prejudice' in an online world (whereas traditional outlets are subject to editorial redaction and laws of libel).
After exploring the effects of a cultural shift towards a hyper (dash) society and its chief causes, three cautionary conclusions are reached:
First, society must find a way to reconnect the "concentrators who represent dispersors" (Fukuyama), maybe in a "grand coalition of moderates" such as the German model (Ferguson), not consolidators who represent their own interests. Time and time again, market research has shown a chronic distrust in governments who are "unresponsive and uninterested".
Secondly, Naim challenges us to get off the perpetual "elevator thinking" of ranking of ephemeral metrics which masks much wider trends, such as multipolarity and fracturing. A good example of this is the school league table system..but moving swiftly on...
Thirdly, and more intriguingly, the global condition is summed up as one of "post-hegemonic anomie" (Durkheim) in the breaking of the bonds between the individual and community. A social sclerosis persists in many political systems from the "past restorers" in conventional modern China or radical premodern Islam, and especially those redefining the present in the West - the "social anger exploiters". These demagogic challengers can be viewed as mopping up the backlash of a MMM revolution and might turn out to be the "terrible simplifiers" of deceitful promises (Burckhardt).
To expand on the terrible simplifiers argument, it is worth mentioning that the appetite to undercut authoritarianism, for which the newly found Mentalism might exhibit, would by logical extension,show an aversion to contrivance politics and sleight of hand tactics. Politics, arguably in the US, is lined by the pockets of big business and banks - so why not elect a straight-talking "big" businessman, not a self-serving politician as President - could this be the hidden public response?
The ridiculousness of the situation only mirrors the radical distortion of the political gridlock that is apparent. But, if as quoted in Rolling Stone Magazine: "a woman tells a journalist that she supports Trump because his manhoods are the size of watermelons, while his opponents are more like grapes or raisins", then the unusual show of power tactics during the primaries (including the theatrics of Hobbesian tribalism, xenophobia, and scapegoating) could be eventually what the public are voting for - an extraordinary dealmaker (in crude political terms). Therefore, to try and conclude Naim's assertion with a question is really all that can be mustered, after a fairly comprehensive analysis of this thought provoking book: have we given birth to a a new type of megaplayer, or is this unfolding phenomena actually part of an MMM insurrection?