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May 16, 2008

Interesting book, boring thesis - Richard D. North finds that you can pull at Mr Rothkopf's rug at nearly any point and pull it out from under him: Superclass: The global power elite and the world they are making - David Rothkopf

Posted by Richard D. North

Superclass: The global power elite and the world they are making
by David Rothkopf
London: Little, Brown, 2008
Hardback, £20

It is possible that I've spent the last few years in denial. After all, this is the sixth book I've reviewed here which says there is a new informal order of affluence and influence at work at home or globally. (If you're a glutton for punishment - bless you - the others were by Robert Peston, Joe Studwell, Robert Frank, Hywel Williams, and Stewart Lansley.) I thought none of them sold their Big Idea, though quite a lot of them were great reads. Am I missing something?

Superclass has disarming moments in which it all but admits its several failures. Mr Rothkopf claims that his study is fresh. It is about "the equitable distribution of power". That wouldn't make it particularly special. But anyway, he disclaims any idea that he is a cabalist.

As a Jew, I have always had a particularly soft place in my heart for the old notion of a world Jewish conspiracy.
After all, he says, if there was one he might be in on it.

Instead, he argues that there about 6,000 people in the world who wield a special sort of global power. Each is one in a million, literally. They mostly know each other, or have access to each other at meetings such as Davos, and they are making things happen. He has a list of these people, but he won't publish it (he says) because the names come and go too quickly.

I suspect publication has been avoided because once we saw it, we'd know what cobblers the thesis is.

Let's go back to the central assertion. There is a "class" of person which has such power that it is worth telling us about "the world they are making". You can pull at Mr Rothkopf's rug at nearly any point and pull it out from under him.

Not really a class
Class first. To have meaning, a class is a group which works together with a coherence of interest or purpose. What's more, it ought to include heritability. One is entitled or condemned to class by birth. But as you read Mr Rothkopf's often enthralling pages, what you see is that his top 6,000 are about as divided from each other as from everyone else. They include Bono and neo-liberal economists and oilmen and global warming alarmists.

Mr Rothkopf sort of notes that a further difficulty is that most members of the group are so in an ex officio way. He mentions but does not stress that it makes a big difference whether a person has power which is personal and secret (and unaccountable), or whether he's the CEO of BP or Exxon (and in the glare of supervision). Even as Mr Rothkopf tries to thrill us with, say, the power of the people who run Carlyle, the investment group, he has to admit that its being supposedly secretive is somehow at odds with the vast publicity which accompanies its deals. He says his list and analysis includes government people (though he doesn't talk about them much). If so, it's odd, since many of these are democratically mandated and their power is therefore hyper-legitimate.

Not really powerful
Mr Rothkopf wants us to get excited by the power of these people. But at every point one wonders whether they have very much of it. Power must be arbitrary or it doesn't signify. The money-men amongst the 6,000 are driven by a commercial logic. They thrive or suffer according to the markets and the owners of the capital they deploy. They successfully read the runes, get the zeitgeist, catch a good wave - or they're out on their ear with a vast pay-off, but still out.

There are passages on Rupert Murdoch which try to bolster the idea that there is a powerful media elite. But Murdoch is only an intermittently noisy and always conflicted populist. Who cares that he's not keen on Europe or the monarchy or whatever else? The opinion marketplace in which he makes millions or billions has a fantastic variety of voices and he thrives by articulating the quite strongly held prejudices of quite a large number of people. I feel redneck about as often as I want a Burger King, and when I do I thank Rupert for Fox. I feel sated, not duped.

Mr Rothkopf says Bill Clinton is the most powerful private man on the planet, and he's certainly a great star. But like many has-beens, he can only hang on to power through philanthropy, and even then only by being a brilliant catalyst for the generous impulses of millions of shareholders and voters. Bono may have power, but isn't it only the power of being the mouthy exponent of a popular cliché? If he did not articulate the ideals of millions of activists, he would just be another man too rude to take his sunglasses off when he speaks to you.

Not really making a world
As to the world this supposed superclass is supposed to be making, what we really see is ordinary, pretty good stuff. There are fascinating passages where Rothkopf shows us the inner, informal workings of New York’s official and unofficial banking world. But he is merely letting us know about the entirely necessary enmeshing of democratically-mandated authority with the private enterprises they are paid to work with. We may not know much about this work (and most of us, me included, understand less), but if such meetings didn’t go on, I'd want to know why. World capitalism and my bungalow feel the safer for them.

David Rothkopf seems to be suggesting that in both affluence and influence, clout is being compressed in the tip of the pyramid of the world's power structure. It is moot in his book whether the superclass is the chicken or the egg of the piece.

He looks rather cursorily at the proposition that the world's wealth is less equitably distributed than it once was and is even less thorough on whether inequality matters as much as poverty. He is useless on how the trends for these can diverge.

Similarly, he seems to think that the world's power units are getting fewer and mightier, but doesn’t prove it. He thinks organised religions, the multinational media, and the bigger NGOs are somehow accreting and hogging influence. But I am sceptical that just because some institutions get bigger and there are fewer really big players, that means they have more power, let alone that their bosses do. They compete and operate in a world in which there is enormous vibrancy amongst the minnows and the masses.

No more nations?
Mr Rothkopf promotes another shibboleth. This is that the superclass is making a more globalised world in which power is slipping away from national governments, but not going toward formal international bodies. He thinks that allows the superclass to exert authority. But this is quite doubtful. Putin and Chávez and dozens of others testify to a world in which national power is real and idiosyncratic. Big Oil has to kowtow to nasty national governments. Come to that, so does the US. China's national leaders are doing deals with Africa's national leaders.

There is evidence, as Mr Rothkopf notes, that global firms are footloose: but they still have to settle somewhere, and there needs to be credible legality in the tax haven and a decent middle class to staff the HQ, or the deals are off. Firms may exert downward pressure on corporation taxes. Is that a huge factor in a country's tax regime, and in a bad way? I doubt it's decisively so. Even if it is, it doesn't do much for the superclass idea.

Even if power is globalised a bit, or a lot, the effect may mostly be very good. After all, the discipline imposed on firms by the global citizenry is also increasing, and defies borders. Firms now live in a global goldfish bowl. Increasingly, governments seem to. But I don’t believe Mr Rothkopf’s central idea that power has slipped between the nations and multinational organisations. Rather, if nations have to gang up together to reclaim any seepage, they will. Maybe they already have. The superclass may have a grip on power which is quite slight and temporary.

In short, I see accountability patchily growing, and that means power is patchily less arbitrary.

Interesting book, boring thesis
All that aside, this is a decent and sometimes quite funny account of the networking which powerful people get up to. Much of it, says Mr Rothkopf, is just old men waffling and yearning for former days of glory. Davos can sometimes look like much more than that, but by Mr Rothkopf's account it is feeling the pressure. On the one hand, it's a meeting where some busy people can do deals. On the other, it's where they can pretend to care about the suffering world beneath their Lear jets. But it has to run quite hard to keep up with the various foundations (Clinton’s, Gates’s) which are providing better networks and better access to the consciences and wallets of the rich. Its very success – its noisiness, its transparency, the attention it seeks and gets – may make the real players retreat from it further.

David Rothkopf sells himself as an experienced schmoozer of the world’s powerful. He would have done better to have written an amused, agenda-free account of the mores of the people who run the campaigns, foundations, media, religions and firms who make up "civil society" which extends, limits, criticises, funds, delivers, informs, redeems and entertains the world of politics in which power is formally and - still - mostly vested. This business of their being a class, or making our world, is way over the top and an irritating distraction from some absorbing journalism about interesting people and their intermingling.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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