[Marxism] Doug Henwood on the Global Power Elite

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jun 27 07:20:26 MDT 2008

Doug Henwood on the Global Power Elite
Posted on Jun 27, 2008

By Doug Henwood

Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making
By David Rothkopf
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pages

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?

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.

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.
book cover

More information about the Marxism mailing list