The Revenge of Power: A Great Book that will help you better understand Modern Politics

April 19, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

I do love a ‘big book’ – one with a grand sweep, which tries to make sense of disparate events and processes, and leaves you feeling a little wiser. Think Francis Fukuyama (on the rise of the state), Ha-Joon Chang (on economics of development) or Yuen Yuen Ang (on China).

I came away from Moises Naim’s latest book, The Revenge of Power, feeling like I had a better grasp of the causes and consequences of the craziness of politics over the last few years – Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban, internet trolls and disinformation, Q-Anon and all the rest.

Naim frames this in terms of ‘3P’s. The new ‘3P autocrats’ have a formula for ‘a malignant new form of power’: Populism, Polarization and Post-Truth

Populists portray a political realm neatly cleft in two: the corrupt, greedy elite versus the noble and pure – but betrayed and aggrieved – Volk, the people.

The populist repertoire, repeated endlessly, includes catastrophism, the criminalization of political rivals, using external threats, militarization and para militarization, crumbling national borders, denigrating experts, attacking the media, undermining checks and balances, Messianic delivery. Sound familiar?

But there’s a more subtle argument in here – why do 3P autocrats even bother with all the manoeuvring, rather than just seizing power like a Pinochet or Mobutu in the last century? Naim argues that post-Cold War, those cruder tactics would not work in most places ‘In a world where people, goods and ideas are constantly on the move, and the old instinct to defer to higher-ups or to tradition is on the wane, any attempt to claim absolute authority is swimming against the historical tide…. In the 21st Century, new autocratic regimes typically emerge not by toppling democracies via force, but by passing themselves off as democracies.’

Modern societies have found various ways to check absolute power ‘through a clever institutional design built into the liberal consensus: an interlocking system of government bodies, each guarding the others, each ensuring no single one of them can run off with power.’ So ‘the first order of business for leaders aspiring to wield unchecked political power is to bend the institutions of the state to their will.’

They do this by stealth: ‘while their 20th Century predecessors set out to destroy the rule of law with brute force, 21st Century autocrats undermine it through the corrosive power of insincere mimicry.’ While people like Duterte, Bolsonaro or Putin invoking the law may seem risible, ‘the goal is to muddy the waters, to create just enough murkiness around the legitimacy of a course of action to allow it to go forward’. Hence gerrymandering rather than scrapping elections, stacking electoral commissions and supreme courts rather than simply abolishing them. ‘Absolute power survives, furtively, by mimicking the institutions it corrupts’ he concludes (and yes, some of the writing is wonderful).

The new authoritarians’ tactics are different too: ‘Time was when ultimate censorship came in the form of a knock on the door from the secret police in the middle of the night. In the 21st Century, this was replaced by tax audits, fines over recondite regulations, the withdrawal of government advertising budget, and entreaties from mysterious ‘private investors’ seeking an ownership stake.’

The pandemic turbocharged this process: Covid was ‘music to the ears of dictators and 3P autocrats’. Elections postponed, militaries and autocrats strengthened, democracy weakened by states of emergency.

The result, in Naim’s view, is a hollowing out of democracy. ‘Political parties may survive in some form, the way vestigial wings do on flightless birds’. Ditto other ‘old institutions’ – legal, media, and social – ‘that once mediated between citizens and rulers’.

At times this becomes a kind of ‘lament of the technocrat’. Naim, a former Venezuelan trade minister and editor of Foreign Policy magazine, asks ‘. ‘At a deeper, more troubling level, the question is why the followers continue to support populists even after there is overwhelming evidence that their promises are empty… [and they] are bent on concentrating power at the expense of their followers’ well-being?’ i.e. why have they stopped listening to us experts, dammit?

One of the reasons, he thinks, is that there is too much change for a lot of people, and politics lines up along the levels of anxiety that induces. ‘People who are relatively open to new experiences have sorted themselves into the center-left, while the threat-averse identify largely with the right.’

There is a great chapter on digital media as low cost way to introduce a ‘firehose of falsehoods’ into public debate, amplifying ‘Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD)’ and overwhelming quaint attempts to win arguments based on evidence and reason. Deepfake video is only just getting started but will take that destabilization (being used by just about every serious cyberpower) to a whole new level.

So a great book, but with (at least) four weak spots.

Firstly, to what extent have the elites brought this on themselves? He briefly touches on this, but then reverts to the credulous masses being duped by evil autocrats and their bots, trolls and lies.

Second, the elite-eye view of politics. This is about those holding formal power. The masses appear from time to time as shapeless blobs of protest, but these soon subside and normal service is resumed.

Third is Africa. His two cautionary tales are Trump and Putin, with a side of Brexit. On digital politics in Africa, he seems unaware of the great work of Nanjala Nyabola – his main source seems to be the Economist!

Fourth, in order to stick to a clean, accessible argument, he sometimes has to perform some gracvity-defying intellectual contortions, such as lumping together China and Trump as examples of 3P politics.

He ends the book with the inevitable call to arms, but it’s a rather vague appeal for liberals to step up in fighting lies, criminalized governments, autocratic interference and political cartels. Otherwise, he seems pretty gloomy.

‘Liberals offer a complicated explanation for why conducting politics in a certain way will lead to the best results for all. Not only is this counternarrative full of abstract ideas, but it often lacks an identifiable hero and villain. Our ‘good guys’ are just those willing to commit to a set of abstract ideals and procedural rules, and our ‘bad guys’ are those who refuse to do so. The entire package can feel lifeless, bloodless, hatched in a lab. I passionately believe it’s correct, but I also have to accept that it doesn’t get people’s adrenaline pumping the way a 3P narrative does.’

Based on this, my impression is that he sees recent defeats for autocrats (Biden, Lula etc) as the blip, rather than Trump and Bolsonaro. I really hope he is wrong.

And if you prefer socials to reading books, here’s Naim presenting it on a podcast or an online conversation video

April 19, 2023
Duncan Green