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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

(Page 2)

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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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.

Report this

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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