David Rothkopf takes us to New York, Chile, Switzerland and Russia to hobnob with the world's string-pulling heavy-weights - the "superclass."
Your life is not in your hands. A small number of jet-setting movers and shakers dictate your job, your standard of living, the car you drive and even the religion you practice. Most of the über bosses pull the levers of power from the shadows of global institutions. If you are thinking that your boss or your governor or senator calls the shots, get used to a new world order. Government and business as we have known it are heading for the trash bin of history to make way for a new order based on informal networks and decision by fiat.
This unsettling conclusion comes from David Rothkopf's "Superclass," a book that blends the chitchat of the cult film "My Dinner With Andre" and the trenchant analysis of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Rothkopf brings us along to dinner, coffee and wine in New York, Chile, Switzerland and Russia to hobnob with world heavyweights.
The new world order departs from the sunny Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood depicted by Thomas Friedman in "The World Is Flat." Rothkopf identifies 6,000 mostly older white men from either side of the Atlantic who form what he calls the "transnational superclass" -- a strata that controls the preeminent business, government, military, religious and nonprofit institutions. It includes the "few thousand people who effectively control ... two-thirds of the world's total assets" and are closely interconnected through membership on one another's boards and such get-togethers as the World Economic Forums in Davos, Switzerland.
The conclusion may not surprise you -- our lives are controlled by a few who face "few or no institutional means of counterbalancing." Democracy and institutional checks and balances are gone.
Those in the superclass determine the subject of debate (for instance, the unambiguous wisdom of free markets) and serve as near dictators over the kingdom of their organizations and the hundreds of millions who work under them. Government institutions and international organizations are mere "Lilliputians."
Although Rothkopf dismisses conspiratorial theories associated with the likes of the Trilateral Commission and the Bohemian Grove, he concedes that "the aligned interests of large segments of the superclass often produce the same outcomes that dark conspiracies might." Rothkopf's most persistent worry is the huge and growing disparity in power and money -- "the interests of all are resolved by the actions or inactions of a few," and most lack the "means to speak for themselves."
The prospects for another century of America as top dog are not good. Americans will have less affluence, less military dominance and less power. The future superclass will become more Asian, Indian and Russian. Instead of shaping the lifestyles of other countries, Americans will start to emulate the cultures in Asia and elsewhere, Rothkop argues. He counsels against nationalism and knee-jerk culture shock. The "era of the nation-state as we know it ... has ended," and the reactionary attacks on the new global order will only "impede the creation ... of international governance." The script is written, and it is now time to follow it.
Although pitfalls abound, he says, he's optimistic about progress toward innovative intermeshing of government and other actors. The superclass plays decisive roles in coordinating a vibrant but potentially unstable world economy. It also fosters important social initiatives such as the World Health Organization's vaccine and immunization programs and economic development in Palestine, he argues. He also holds out some hope that the enlightened self-interest of the superclass will prompt its members to share power to head off the impending "backlash" and "cascading public reacton."
"Superclass" is highly recommended for readers concerned about the concentration of power and inclined to dig into social analyses. (Come all ye C. Wright Mills fans.) It does require patience owing to repetitiveness and a tendency toward name-dropping that befits an entry into the "Guinness Book of World Records."
And, for all its length, "Superclass" offers few, if any, persuasive, concrete accounts of Rothkopf's power elite's actual influence. Where is Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal the Wizard of Oz working the levers? We have the accoutrements of power -- money, jets and the big houses -- but are left to infer power. Rothkopf's ruling elite may not be as cohesive as he suggests and, given the current financial crisis, not nearly in as much control as he assumes.
Nor are we as pawnlike. Decisions we make in the voting booths come November and work we're doing on the ground in our own communities could well reshuffle things.
Lawrence R. Jacobs is director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.