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Arts and Culture

Doug Henwood on the Global Power Elite

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Posted on Jun 27, 2008
book cover

By Doug Henwood

Are we now ruled by an international elite that has left national borders far behind? It’s a fashionable view across the political spectrum that enjoys special prominence every January, when the alleged members of that alleged class hold their annual shareholders’ meeting in Davos, Switzerland. David Rothkopf, the author of “Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making,” would strike the alleged from the previous sentence. To him, there’s no doubt that this superclass exists and it’s running the show. 

We’ve had a series of books in recent years that amount to little more than a pornography of wealth. But the connection of wealth to actual power is rarely explored. Sure, hedge fund managers can deploy billions, and CEOs can hire and fire thousands, but what is the relation of that narrow economic power to broader political, social and cultural power?

 

book cover

 

Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making

 

By David Rothkopf

 

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pages

 

Buy the book

 

What are the limits to their power? How much are they at the mercy of competitors, impersonal financial markets or personal pressure from large institutional investors? There’s definitely a cult of the celebrity CEO, but to what degree are such executives embedded in a system larger than they are (mere personifications of capital, in Marx’s excellent phrase)?

For Rothkopf, the emergence of a superclass isn’t the product of struggle or contingency so much as the operation of a law of nature. To prove this, he turns to the sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto’s 80/20 theory: 20 percent of causes are responsible for 80 percent of consequences. The phrasing is vague because Rothkopf sees it as applying to nearly everything; the relevant application here is to explain the distribution of income and ultimately power. In fact, the richest 10 percent of Americans pull down 46 percent of income, but presumably 80/20 is close enough for trade publishing. And Rothkopf sees no need to disclose the fact that Pareto was profoundly anti-democratic, was in love with violence and was greatly admired by Mussolini. Since the class question has been solved, no need to bring up such embarrassments.

“Superclass” proper opens in Davos—not in one of the meeting halls, but in a fondue joint at the edge of town. It’s funny to think of the hyper-elite engaging in such middlebrow cuisine (though I suppose the Swiss get a pass on that class judgment), but I guess the point is that at some level they’re just folks too. Rather than linger over the bubbling cheese, Rothkopf quickly moves on to C. Wright Mills, whose 1955 book “The Power Elite” (still in print, still selling briskly) provides a vague template for Rothkopf’s investigation. I say vague because while the Rothkopf book is full of the personalities that Mills’ book is lacking, it shows none of the rigor of the original. (And none of the style, either.) Although Rothkopf shows some admiration for the first half of Mills’ book, he laments the way the second half “veers into polemic.” Imagine being annoyed by an elite hellbent on accumulation and violence! None of that in this book, whose north star is “balance.”

But Rothkopf also declares Mills’ book to be obsolete because it’s focused entirely on the national ruling class; today’s power elite is global. Besides, the class-struggle question has been settled with the fall of the Soviet Union, you see; now our central battle is national versus global.

Certainly there’s some degree of truth to this critique of Mills, but Rothkopf mainly relies on asserting that putative fact over and over, while trusting the reader’s preconceptions to make the case. But to what degree has the U.S. elite, or any other national elite, left the nation-state behind? Politics still remain heavily national. Most senior U.S. corporate executives live in their headquarters country, and write checks to the campaigns of politicians whose ambitions focus on Washington, not the U.N. or the WTO. The frequency of currency crises around the world suggests that national economies are far from seamlessly globalized. When Bear Stearns hit a wall, it was the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury that stepped in to craft a rescue. Even the international machinations of the International Monetary Fund are directed to a large degree by the U.S. Treasury; as the late MIT economist Rudi Dornbusch once put it, “The IMF is a toy of the United States to pursue its economic policy offshore.” Neither the IMF nor the U.S. is quite what it was in the 1980s and 1990s, but sometimes it seems that the borderless world exists mainly in fantasy. Even Rothkopf is compelled to wonder early in the book if Davos is just a “once-a-year Brigadoon of globalization,” but he never lets the question get in the way of his argument.

Just who is this superclass? Rothkopf is a little coy on the details—he has a list of about 6,000 names, but he’s not sharing, because its membership is so volatile. They’re rich, and mostly white and male, and they tend to fly on private jets a lot (and not just to Davos) because “they consider first class a downgrade.” They’re mostly CEOs and the like, though people like Bono also appear to be members. And since this is mostly a loving portrait, from an insider, or at least an aspirant, we’re told that the superclass is full of folks who are “brilliant, full of energy, and creative.” And happy, and “really interesting” too. They probably have better and more frequent sex than we do too.

But is it really a class if its constitution can vary so much from year to year? Doesn’t the very concept of class imply some degree of stability—not permanence, of course, but some continuity? It’s certainly the case that the constitution of the American ruling class has changed over the centuries—but there’s enough stability over the course of a few decades to periodize the thing. (See the excellent collection “Ruling America,” edited by Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, for the full story.) Rothkopf’s analysis seems informed by the spirit of the Forbes 400, with its constantly changing cast of characters, itself a reflection of the volatility of the stock market. One year oil is up, the next it’s consumer staples, the next it’s e-tailing.


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By troublesum, July 6, 2008 at 8:31 am Link to this comment

Never heard such an apt discription of the difference between democrats and republicans as in Henwood’s third to last paragraph.

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By herb, June 30, 2008 at 8:36 am Link to this comment

[This replaces a comment I posted without being logged in]

Fortunes propagate through time, preserve themselves, grow and reproduce just like biological organisms. They also attack and consume each other like large fish eating smaller fish, so that fortune size tends to increase over time and a small number of allied fortunes tend to dominate economic and social life.

Large fortunes do have a life span counted in multiple generations of human time. They tend to senesce, weaken and be devoured by more vital, younger fortunes acting like carrion beasts and preditors. Over spans of hundreds of years fortunes tend to remain associated with certain blood lines by inheritance, but lately they tend to be more closely associated with the immortality of corporate entities. They often stay fixed in one, or a small group of tight knit clans, but also can shift to “ownership” by a different group, as was true of the Knights Templar fortune.

All the individual humans associated with these concentrations of wealth are expendable in service of the security of the concentration itself. Struggles for dominance between concentrations of wealth lead to an interpretation of history that emphasizes the drama of conquest and personal ambition of “great” people, stories that appeal to egocentricity of the human character. The humans involved in these dramas of domination and conquest are more like servants of the fortunes and are more like the property of the fortunes than its “owners.” 

Continuity and stability are positive associations for these concentrations so, at any one time, they tend to be strongly linked to given nations and formal institutions so there is a convincing illusion of “ownership” and personal power being held by a specific group, be it national, racial, religious or what have you.  The actual situation is that a sort of super-organism defined by a self assertive concentrations of wealth exists as a metaphenomenon of the human species’ biological potential. Freddy Perlman’s lyrical essay “Against His-story, Against Leviathan” is my source for this kind of thinking.
Concentrations of wealth and power in excess of the limits of that accessible by small tribes, that were the evolutionary platform for human development, are an emergent feature of the more complex social arrangements that were enabled by agriculture as opposed to the set of self limited negative feedback loops that evolved to sustain pre-agricultural social groupings. 

We have dragons among us made up of the enchanted bodies of humans bent to the will of the reptilian will.  They are quite capable of abandoning human parasitization in favor of machine intelligence as has been speculated about in various science fiction formats such as The Terminator series of movies.  Hence, our entire species may prove expendable in the long run as concentrated power finds more amenable servants.

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By herb, June 29, 2008 at 10:00 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Fortunes propagate through time, preserve themselves, grow and reproduce just like biological organisms. They also attack and consume each other like large fish eating smaller fish, so that fortune size tends to increase over time and a small number of allied fortunes tend to dominate economic and social life.

Large fortunes do have a life span counted in multiple generations of human time. They tend to senesce, weaken and be devoured by more vital, younger fortunes acting like carrion beasts and preditors. Over spans of hundreds of years fortunes tend to remain associated with certain blood lines by inheritance, but lately they tend to be more closely associated with the immortality of corporate entities. They often stay fixed in one, or a small group of tight knit clans, but also can shift to “ownership” by a different group, as was true of the Knights Hospitaliers fortune.

All the individual humans associated with these concentrations of wealth are expendable in service of the security of the concentration itself. Struggles for dominance between concentrations of wealth lead to an interpretation of history that emphasizes the drama of conquest and personal ambition of “great” people, stories that appeal to egocentricity of the human character. The humans involved in these dramas of domination and conquest are more like servants of the fortunes and are more like the property of the fortunes than its “owners.” 

Continuity and stability are positive associations for these concentrations so, at any one time, they tend to be strongly linked to given nations and formal institutions so there is a convincing illusion of “ownership” and personal power being held by a specific group, be it national, racial, religious or what have you.  The actual situation is that a sort of super-organism defined by a self assertive concentrations of wealth exists as a metaphenomenon of the human species’ biological potential. 

Concentrations of wealth and power in excess of the limits of that accessible by small tribes, that were the evolutionary platform for human development, are an emergent feature of the more complex social arrangements that were enabled by agriculture as opposed to the set of self limited negative feedback loops that evolved to sustain pre-agricultural social groupings. 

We have dragons among us made up of the enchanted bodies of humans bent to the will of the reptilian will.  They are quite capable of abandoning human parasitization in favor of machine intelligence as has been speculated about in various science fiction formats such as The Terminator series of movies.  Hence, our entire species may prove expendable in the long run.

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By Jym Allyn, June 29, 2008 at 9:18 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

No doubt the current US economy does NOT fit the classic Pareto 80/20 “rule” but that is because it is an economy built on sharing wealth rather than controlling wealth.

The 10% of our society that controls 50% of our wealth differs from the old European model in which 20% of the population DID control 80% of the wealth, or the current Islamic economic model in which 5% of the population controls 95% of the wealth.

Pareto failed to notice that while in a random environment, 80% of the results DO come from 20% of the causes, in a controlled environment, 95% of the results come from 5% of the causes.

This is “correlated in nature” by the ratio of herbivores to carnivores among both cold-blooded (limited environmental response) and warm-blooded (high environmental response) animals.  Among cold-blooded animals the ratio of herbivores to carnivores is 80/20.  Among warm-blooded animals the ratio of herbivores to carnivores is 95/5. 

The reason why our US economy is so “democratic” in having a 50/10 ratio is that our government regulations provide controls against monopoly and for an open economy.  Thanks to the discovery that wealth comes from increasing the value and information content of goods services as well as getting them efficiently to the consumer, our economy has exponentially grown from sharing goods and services rather than from controlling goods and services.

However, for the time being, the descendants of King Midas still live in Islamic countries.

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By Michael Waters, June 28, 2008 at 11:34 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Would the mere desire to retain the status quo (We’re ludicrously rich/powerful while you 99.9999% aren’t) explain the overall machinations of a “power elite,” assuming such an entity exists?

If the answer to this question is yes, then could certain immoral acts which flow from this motive be explained by the ever human trait of self preservation, and the concomitant willingness to do anything necessary to accomplish self preservation?  Can immoral wars thus be explained by the need to garner ludicrously excessive backlogs of power and wealth in order to assure the “power elite’s” hegemony?  After all, no one wants to leave to mere chance one’s preservation of self. 

If yes, then these people can be seen as regular blokes who just happened to be born into, or just happened to have acquired several million times more lucre than the average bear.  Can’t blame them for wanting to preserve their happy circumstances, right? 

Wrong.  I’d guess that these regular folk become evil not by virtue of sinister plots to enslave the rest of us (or whatever plot you’d like to impute), but they morph into demons the second they become willing to “do what is necessary” to preserve their fool proof future, given that such bullet proof futures are impossible to achieve in the annals of humankind, and such strivings for ultimate security are as innately doomed as we pawns caught in the crossfire.

Thus, ultimately, the “power elite” are dealing with the ever present bugaboo we all deal with, namely the fear and reality of DEATH.  They just happen to have extra abundant means to fool themselves they can avoid the grim reaper, Hence, they fall into the cruel orgy of the end justifies the means, with the 99.9999% paying the price.

Thoughts?

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By P. T., June 27, 2008 at 12:40 pm Link to this comment

A problem with books such as this one is that they do not explain adequately how the global elite supposedly enforces its will.  I am reminded of Karl Kautsky’s theory of ultra-imperialism.  There is a failure in dealing with the matter of inter-imperialist rivalry.

The biggest military by far belongs to the U.S.  Its military is not under the control of a global elite.  Its military is under the control of a U.S. elite.

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By Stephen Smoliar, June 27, 2008 at 10:47 am Link to this comment

hmk, you might find THE AMERICAN RULING CLASS (which I first saw on the Sundance Channel) a more informative (if not as entertaining) video on this topic:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0455906/

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By srelf, June 27, 2008 at 10:37 am Link to this comment

Good analysis of the book, Mr. Henwood,  and an educational review for me.
Your statement, “The Republican never has doubts about the rightness of a money-driven hierarchical society ultimately backed by violence. The Democrat, though, is troubled by doubts and anxieties in the back of his mind that get diluted by evasion and qualification by the time they work their way toward the front of the mind.” is funny AND true!

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By Stephen Smoliar, June 27, 2008 at 9:25 am Link to this comment

I suspect that a key feature that distinguishes those pornography-of-wealth books from more substantive social theory (such as the work of Mills) has to do with whether the book tries to address the question of MOTIVE.  Is it really about nothing more than “having all the marbles;”  or is there some longer-range cause behind all those data points that provide such pornographic titillation?  I may not have enough data to write a book (or an agent who would make that effort worth my while);  but I still feel it is important to explore the hypothesis that the motive may have to do with the desire to create “a new class of slaves.”  This has become a focus of some of my most recent blogging, the latest piece being at

http://therehearsalstudio.blogspot.com/2008/06/shame-of-public-schools.html

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By hmk, June 27, 2008 at 6:04 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This review puts me in mind of a dvd I recently saw: Alex Jones’ Endgame, which is kind of Rothkopf turned on his head.  Jones also buys into this global power elite idea hook-line-and-sinker: it’s the Bilderbergs who are the wanna-be rulers of the world.  Except his view of the global power elite is of a totally sinister group of power-mad villains who plan to reduce the world population by 80% at some undisclosed future date.  I have to admit, Jones’ view is a lot more dramatic; but probably just as skewed.

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