Tuesday, 17 March 2009

“Superclass”, by David Rothkopf (Little, Brown)


“The Global Power Elite & The World They Are Making”

In Superclass, David Rothkopf has written a portrait of the most powerful people on the planet. Literally one-in-a-million, these people are found in diverse walks of life, be it politics, business, the media, or religion. One constant among them is that they wield a level of power and influence that far outstrips any other grouping. As will become apparent while reading this book, and as Rothkopf himself puts it, “power on the planet is not only concentrated, it is extraordinarily concentrated.”

Superclass is a highly informative and engaging book. Far from being a who’s-who of the wealthy, or just some rather wordy version of Forbes’ rich-list, Rothkopf has instead tried to gather a greater, deeper understanding of how these people operate, how they have come to be in the position they are in, and what this means for the rest of us. He begins by explaining who they are, how their wealth and power has accumulated, as well as highlighting the growing inequities in wealth-distribution in this globalised era (going on at length about CEO compensation).

There has always been, throughout history, some form of superclass. Whether it was comprised of politicians or the extremely wealthy, history has been peppered with the stories of these most influential people. The author deals with a number of issues that the existence of this class creates: How does it effect global equality? What is the impact on national sovereignty and international law? How has the class evolved? And what is the nature of its power?

The book is divided into six main sections. The first deals with the ‘theory’ of the superclass – who are they, what is their place in today’s society, and also some historical context (looking at Ancient Greece, Ming/Qing China, and then Gilded Age America). The next four sections deal with the superclass from four distinct groupings and sectors: financial/business, political, military, and ‘ideas’. Despite separating them into these groups, there is considerable overlap – especially for the business and political elites, where the one reinforces the other. This is the section of the book that, for me, was most interesting.

Rothkopf manages to draw the reader in using anecdotes, interviews, and plenty of original reporting. In the business chapter, he discusses Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the Russian oligarchs, Pete G. Peterson of Blackstone, Goldman Sachs (which seems to have its paws in everything), and a host of other elites with their hands on influential levers. The political chapter naturally focuses on the American President, the National Security Council and US State Department (where apparently almost two-thirds of employees don’t even have a passport!), though also on Nicholas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi. Military power has always been a force of influence, and Rothkopf details the extent of the military-industrial-complex and the premise of “eternal war footing”, which drives much of the development and procurements of the (US) military. The power of ideas is increasingly important – be it generated from Google or Rupert Murdoch’s vast media empire, or religious leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or even the Pope.

All of these examples are used to illustrate the trends and consistencies with the lessons learned from the historical analysis. How the lessons of Ancient Greece and Qing Dynasty China has shown that the consequences of overreaching can be disastrous, just as complacency can be; “Neglect of power is as corrosive as abuse of power.” In some ways, it is surprising that today’s elite haven’t always learned from their predecessors’ mistakes.

By describing the paths taken to power, and through anecdotal stories of coffee at Davos with Paulo Coehlo, or meeting with Chile’s elite over wine, Rothkopf provides some valuable insight into the way these modern-day titans think about and look at the world and just what their influence means for the average citizen of any one country. He also details the extent of their networks – the overlapping board positions across the globe, providing access and contacts in the most important markets and governments in the world. In some ways, it’s very impressive but at the same time a little frightening when you consider just how much influence this select few people wield.

The author draws on a host of exclusive interviews, original reporting, and a wealth of data and statistics to give us a clear view of the state of the upper echelons of the global community. This exhaustive approach can at times feel rather overwhelming, as though the first couple of chapters are just sieving data, but he gives us a very clear picture of the changing nature of the world (“while the rich are getting much richer, most everyone else – well, they are just treading water”).

Overall, this is a very good book. The book contains a different take on the class often looked at as if it were populated only by evil conspirators, tugging on the strings of politicians and markets to solely their own benefit (sadly, though, there are a few of those). If there is one fault with the book, it is that it’s a little slow to get going. There were a few times when I found myself muttering, “Get on with it!”, but by laying the groundwork at the beginning, for about 90 pages, Rothkopf sets the scene for a very interesting and readable book.

With a keen attention for detail, and a fair appraisal of the world as it is, Superclass is a very worthwhile read. While Rothkopf can’t resist putting his opinion on the Iraq War out there, he at least approaches it armed with data and statistics (matched by a lack of polemic) to explain why he believes it was a “spasm of national overreaction”.

Anecdotal, illuminating, exhaustively researched, and balanced, this is definitely a fascinating and recommended – even essential – book.

Also try: David Rothkopf, Running the World (2005), Robert Frank, Richistan (2008); Robert Reich, Supercapitalism (2007); Charles D. Ellis, The Partnership (2008); Kevin Philips, Wealth & Democracy (2002); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1988 - reprint); David Rothkopf @ Foreign Policy

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