The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century
February 25, 2022
Democracy is under assault, not only in Ukraine but around the world. Moisés Naím opens up the autocrats' playbook to explain how they subvert democracy after claiming its mantle using a mixture of populism, polarization, and post-truth, and what is at stake if we fail to recognize what's happening and protect our freedoms.
The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century by Moisés Naím, St. Martin’s Press
Vladimer Putin took control of Crimea in 2014. To do so, he launched a clandestine invasion and disinformation campaign, claiming the forces he had put on the ground were, in fact, native Crimeans who had established self-defense forces to protect ethnic Russians from local Ukrainians. Considering the fact that these men were unknown to others in the region, let alone the kind of local leaders that could have been expected to organize such a “self-defense force,” that explanation was farcical, but it provided plausible deniability that it was an invasion and takeover by Russian forces. Moisés Naím discusses the events in his new book, The Revenge of Power:
In fact, although the uniforms looked exactly like the standard-issue green fatigues used by the Russian army, they had been stripped of any markings whatsoever, to the point that locals began referring to them as “little green men.”
The charade continued later in the year when two separatist regions were carved out in the east along the Russian border, which have been held by rebel (and similarly shadowy Russian regular) forces ever since and were recognized by Putin as independent on Monday—as if he had the legal authority to do so.
As the sun rose over Ukraine yesterday, we witnessed a full-scale invasion of the entire country, out in the open, but the disinformation about the cause and aims of that invasion continues. Right now, Russian forces are closing in on the capital city, Kyiv. Putin, invading a sovereign country with a democratically elected government, claims these actions are necessary because Ukraine—a country that gave up its nuclear arsenal in 1994 in return for a security guarantee from Russia, a country with 45 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons—needs to be “demilitarized.” Putin has also suggested his aim is the “denazification” of the country, even though Ukraine’s elected president is Jewish and had family members murdered by the actual Nazis, even though the group of “little green men” Russia used in its previous clandestine incursions included, alongside unmarked members of the Russian regular army, the Wagner Group, an assemblage of private Russian mercenaries that includes avowed neo-Nazis who have been inserted into conflicts in places as far-flung as Venezuela and Mozambique and accused of committing war crimes on multiple continents.
Naím’s new book is obviously not about the current conflict, but it can help us understand how we’ve come to this precipice in world history and what the ultimate stakes are—the survival of democracy itself. The battle is not only taking place in Ukraine, but here at home and all around the world, as would be autocrats make gains in undermining the democratic systems that elected them with the goal of holding onto power. Naím’s previous book, The End of Power, described how traditional forms of consolidated power were eroding, with both powerfully good and potentially chaotic consequences. This new one explains exactly how autocrats are clawing that power back and attempting to consolidate it once again, and how:
The stakes couldn’t be higher, and nothing is guaranteed. What’s at stake is not just whether democracy will thrive in the twenty-first century, but whether it will even survive as the dominant system of government, the default setting in the global village. Freedom’s survival is not guaranteed.
Naím served as Venezuela’s Minister of Trade and Industry and director of Venezuela’s Central Bank in the early 1990s before the country fell into the grips of autocracy that still hold tight there, so he knows this better than most. From what little I know of the country’s economic policies in the early ‘90s, I’m not sure I would have voted for the administration he was a part of, but at least there was a vote that was considered legitimate, which can no longer be said of elections there.
You may be wondering why a company like ours, which made its bones in business books, is touching on these topics, and I could give you a personal explanation for that. But I will turn instead to Warren Bennis, who is considered by many “the father of leadership”—a pioneer in a field of study that laid the foundation for the ideas, theories, methods, and mountain of books that exist on the topic today. In the introduction to the revised edition of On Becoming a Leader in 2003, Bennis tells us how he became interested in leadership:
I once told an interviewer who asked how I became interested in leadership, that it was impossible to live through the 1930s and '40s without thinking about leadership. There were giants on the earth in those days—leaders of the stature of FDR, Churchill, and Gandhi. And there were also men who wielded enormous power in the most horrific ways—Hitler and Stalin—men who perverted the very essence of leadership and killed millions of innocent people in the process. The Great Depression and the battlefields of World War II were my crucible, as they were for so many people my age.
Matthew Barzun, in The Power of Giving Away Power, tells us the story of another major influence on Bennis, Mary Parker Follet. Bill Taylor recently wrote of her in a piece he shared in our ChangeThis series:
Mary Parker Follett, the highly respected (but often-overlooked) “prophet of management” from the early-twentieth century, famously distinguished between leaders who wield power over people and those who cultivate power with people. “That is always our problem,” she wrote, “not how to get control of people, but how all together we can get control of a situation.”
The situation in Ukraine is one we desperately need to get control of. And to do that, we are faced with an adversarial autocrat whose goal is to get control of an entire people.
We often think we need to bifurcate our minds between what we consider to be “just business” and what we value in our wider communities and politics. But when we look at leadership, influence, and power in the world, and understand it correctly, those lines blur. Business leaders obviously play an influential role in our society, and it is nearly impossible to be successful in business in Russia without being beholden to Putin, and it is telling that the economic sanctions recently announced on Russia place such a large target on the country’s oligarchs. Business and politics are intertwined, and under autocratic rule, both are corrupted.
Naím is clear on the fact that autocrats come from across the ideological spectrum, and often lack ideology altogether. Whatever ideologies they do espouse come second to whatever they need to do to increase their individual power and cult of personality. The examples he offers in the book, which are many “couldn’t be more ideological different, nor more similar in their style of leadership.” One of their defining features is populism. It is through claiming that they are expressing the true will of the people that they are able to gain power and ultimately undermine the power of people to express their will through free and fair elections.
But it’s also important to remember that democrats also come in all ideological shades, and democracies can, should, and do vacillate between progressive and conservative movements and moments. It is the agreement to obey rather than obfuscate the will of the people, to contest and share power in a democratic system and society and honor the result of free and fair elections that makes us strong and resilient. Autocrats know that, which is why their second tool is polarization:
Polarization eliminates the possibility of a middle ground, pushing every single person and organization to take sides.
In a polarized political environment, fandom and identity leave no room for hedged support, cross-party bridge building, or temporary truces between the sides. As polarization advances, political rivals come to be treated as enemies. Contending sides no longer seek to accommodate each other in a quest for minimum viable governing arrangements. Instead, they deny the basic legitimacy of the other side’s right even to contend for power, dispensing with the typical democratic norm that sees alternation in office as a normal, natural, and healthy pillar of democratic coexistence.
Speaking of ideology, it is perhaps instructive to note that both the giants and monsters that emerged in Warren Bennis’s age came from both sides of the political spectrum. This is not a struggle between left and right, but between democracy and autocracy.
The final weapon in an autocrat's political arsenal is the use of disinformation and propaganda, and the full embrace of post-truth. This is where we began this article, with Putin’s post-truth tactics. Together, populism, polarization, and post-truth are what Naím describes as the three Ps that are a signal of autocratic leaders spreading throughout the world today. But, since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the only route to legitimacy in the eyes of most of the world’s population comes through being democratically elected, which is why, as Naím writes:
Twenty-first-century autocrats … work to maintain democratic appearances while furtively undermining democracy.
How do they do it? Through populism, polarization, and post-truth.
But it is not just those who have already successfully elevated themselves to positions of national prominence and leadership. There are new “little green men” autocrats on the rise seemingly everywhere. They come to power emulating the ideals of people power and democracy, camouflage themselves in the rhetoric of freedom, and use the three Ps to erode the foundations of democracy and undermine pluralistic power to concentrate it in themselves.
I regret that because of the moment we find ourselves in, I have not delved into the full details of the book as much as usually do here, but I hope I’ve done enough to convince you that it is an important book for our moment.
Warren Bennis said it was “impossible to live through the 1930s and '40s without thinking about leadership.” It is impossible again today. Ukrainians are fighting like hell for their imperfect, fragile, three-decade old form of democratic government. We should assist them in whatever ways we can. I am not smart enough to know if sanctioning their banks and businesses, and the oligarchs who run them, will be enough. Even though every instinct I have screams that we should, I am not naïve enough to think that joining the fight militarily would do anything other than lead to an even further escalation that would prolong and expand the war that Putin has started, and cause even more death and destruction. Perhaps that will happen anyway. Time will tell. What I know is that Ukrainians are fighting like hell for their democracy, and one way we can help them is to act in solidarity and fight like hell for ours, to see them as a mirror and understand that it's worth it to believe in and rebuild a strong, democratic government capable of supporting other democratic government instead of being taken in by strongmen who are more interested in perpetuating their own power and cult of personality than our ongoing experiment in self-governance.