Earlier this Spring at The Gospel Coalition I reviewed Moisés Naím’s The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be.
Naím explores in a variety of fields and with a great diversity of examples the way in which, as he puts it, “the powerful are experiencing increasingly greater limits on their power” and “power is becoming more feeble, transient, and constrained.” I think there’s a real sense in which Naím has identified a real phenomenon. Power is becoming more and more diffused.
But as I argue in my TGC review, that’s really only half the story. Naím often has to provide a caveat that in spite of much of the centralization that we see, power really is eroding full stop. My contention, however, is that what we’re really seeing is the eroding of power in civil society, an evacuation of the power and place of mediating institutions, in two directions: toward centralized structures and authorities and toward individuals. The inability to see this leads to conclusions that would only hasten and exacerbate the evacuation of power from such mediating structures.
Some of this echoes what Ross Douthat has been saying recently about individualism, following Nisbet in particular: “In the increasing absence of local, personal forms of fellowship and solidarity, he suggested, people were naturally drawn to mass movements, cults of personality, nationalistic fantasias.” I take my own proximate inspiration from Röpke and his identification of “enmassment,” but there are certainly resonances with Nisbet as well as older thinkers like Tocqueville.
I should note in response to Douthat’s observation that “from the Protestant Reformation onward, individualism and centralization would advance together,” this dialectic certainly cannot be explained solely in terms of the Reformation, as perhaps Brad Gregory would argue. The role of the Renaissance more generally, and particularly the renewed engagement with the varieties of ancient and pagan philosophy has as much, if not more, to do with the Enlightenment project of the liberated individual constrained by the collective than the Protestant Reformation.