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Doug Henwood on the Global Power Elite
Posted on Jun 27, 2008
By Doug Henwood
Rothkopf is at pains throughout the book to differentiate himself from those disreputable sorts, the conspiracy theorists of left and right, who’ve sullied the very notion of what sociologists call power structure research. Fair enough, they have. But his treatment of the conspiracists highlights a fundamental weakness of his book.
In his chapter on the conspiracists, he offers up a Michelin guide of some of the standard targets: the Masons, Skull & Bones (which, as Rothkopf notes, is said by conspiracists to control his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the Bilderbergers, the Bohemian Grove, the Trilateral Commission and of course Davos itself. In most cases, he cites some fevered description of how the organization secretly runs the world, then summons some insider to say that they’re really just irrelevant gasfests populated by has-beens (that’s the final judgment on the Trilateralists, the great demons of the 1970s), or just an excuse to get drunk and engage in weird rituals of male bonding (the Bohemian Grove, elegantly described by Richard Nixon as “the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine”).
This weird juxtaposition of conspiracy theory and the alleged irrelevance of so many of the conspiracists’ favorite groups reflects the incoherence of Rothkopf’s project. These institutions and networks are important, but they’re not almighty. They’re somewhat fluid but not totally. They’re dependent on prominent individuals, but also make those individuals prominent. A book like this should investigate the machinery of power, but it ends up treating it all as something of a black box.
It’s not exactly true that Rothkopf considers the class question solved—he worries about the possibility of “backlash,” troublemaking by the excluded 99.9999 percent. (That percentage is no joke; 6,000 people are 0.0001 percent of the world’s population.) That’s a difference between a Democrat like Rothkopf—he served in the Clinton administration—and a Republican. 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.
The backlash is far more likely if the elites don’t find enlightenment, govern with wisdom and write large checks to their foundations. It is true that there is a risk of backlash in a world where opposition to the status quo has become so shriveled and thoughtless. But when has such enlightenment ever occurred without the threat of expropriation? Elites have had it way too easy lately, and the laziness of their chroniclers is one proof of that.
In the end, Rothkopf—who undermines his credibility early in the book with a declaration of love for his former employer, the “brilliant and charming” Henry Kissinger—piles together a series of anecdotes about life at the top, held together with assertions that are presented as if they were self-evident, when in fact they’re not. The book is desperately lacking in analysis or argument, and one finishes hardly any wiser than one was on first having picked it up. It’s less a book than an anthology of listicles, and an awkwardly written one too.
Doug Henwood edits the Left Business Observer, www.leftbusinessobserver.com, and is the author of “After the New Economy” (New Press, 2004) and “Wall Street: How It Works and For Whom” (Verso, 1997, now available for free download at www.wallstreetthebook.com). He also hosts “Behind the News,” www.leftbusinessobserver.com/Radio.html, broadcast on WBAI, New York. He is working on a book on America’s modern power elite.
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