Is there a class behind the nouveau riche?
The Oddly Powerless 'Global Power Elite'
We trim this 2008 book review and also refer readers to Who Owns America? by G. William Domhoff. The writer below edits the Left Business Observer and is the author of After the New Economy and Wall Street: How It Works and For Whom and hosts "Behind the News," broadcast on WBAI, New York.
By Doug Henwood, Truthdig, posted June 27.Are we now ruled by an international elite that has left national borders far behind? To David Rothkopf, the author of Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making, there's no doubt.
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 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.
Rothkopf cites C. Wright Mills, whose 1956 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."
Rothkopf also declares Mills' book to be obsolete because it's focused entirely on the national ruling class; today's power elite, he says, is global.
But to what degree has the US elite, or any other national elite, left the nation-state behind? Politics still remain heavily national. Most senior US corporate executives live in their headquarters country and write checks to the campaigns of politicians whose ambitions focus on Washington. Even the international machinations of the International Monetary Fund are directed to a large degree by the US Treasury.
Rothkopf is at pains throughout the book to differentiate himself from conspiracy theorists. He lists the standard targets: the Masons, Skull and Bones (which, as Rothkopf notes, is said by conspiracists to control his publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the Bilderbergers, the Bohemian Grove, the Trilateral Commission, and Davos. Then dismisses them.
Yet 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 they also make those individuals prominent.
Just who is this superclass? Rothkopf 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. They're mostly CEOs, 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, they are "brilliant, full of energy, and creative." And happy, and "really interesting."
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: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy, 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.
The book is desperately lacking in analysis or argument. Rothkopf 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.
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