Who's in charge here?
How a relative handful of elites run the world

The News & Observer | April 27, 2008
By Peter A. Coclanis

Although many of us don't like it or would like to deny it, elites pretty much run the show today -- just as they have since, oh, maybe, 12,000 years ago when humans began to practice agriculture, and, as a result, began to accumulate surplus resources at differential rates. And today, just as in the past, elites fascinate us, even as they frighten us, and provoke among us feelings of envy or resentment, if not a little bit of both. Theorists have been writing on elites since the time of Plato, and members of the "A list" (or, to be more discerning, in some cases, the "A-/B+ list") of modern social theorists -- people such as Weber, Pareto, Mills and Putnam -- have weighed in on the subject.

In "Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They are Making," Washington insider David Rothkopf provides an interesting new take on elites, arguing that the proper level of refraction to view elites is now global rather than national, regional or local. Indeed, Rothkopf makes the case that there exists today a very small group -- or, better yet, network -- of roughly 6,000 people from various walks of life, who pretty much control the world. Since the world population is now roughly 6.5 billion, this elite is, well, pretty elite: Only one out of every 1.1 million people or so on the planet makes the cut. Being included in Rothkopf's "superclass" is more difficult than attaining membership in, say, Skull and Bones, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Army Rangers, the NBA or, with all due respect to Eliot Spitzer, the Emperors Club VIP!

Rothkopf quite correctly refuses to publish the complete membership roll of his "superclass" -- such a roll would obviously be out of date before his book hit the bookstores -- but the author does give readers a good sense both of the membership profile and of the superclass's prerogatives and powers. Members of the superclass are almost entirely male. Members hail mainly from America and Europe, and, not surprisingly, tend to be extraordinarily wealthy. Although members come from a variety of fields -- politics, religion, the media, academia, sports, the underworld, even terrorist circles -- most are involved in some way or another in finance or business, and the power of many members is derived in large part from their institutional connections. The CEO of a financial (power) house such as Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan Chase has a lot more juice, in other words, than most prime ministers, senators, cabinet ministers, Nobelists or heads of state.

Superclass-mates often know each other from boarding school or university and interact frequently in a variety of formal and informal settings, ranging from annual meetings of the United Nations or International Monetary Fund or, more likely, the World Economic Forum at Davos, to cocktail receptions at exclusive clubs, private boxes at prime sporting events, and vacation homes along the Côte d'Azure, in the Hamptons or in West Palm Beach.

If women and non-Westerners are beginning to register on the roll, it will nonetheless be a long time before members typically are women springing from Beijing University or from one of the Indian Institutes of Technology rather than men from Harvard, Stanford or Oxbridge, whose claims to membership are based as much on birth, educational pedigree and institutional connections as on talent, merit and accomplishments.

If elites, like the poor, have always been with us, what distinguishes Rothkopf's superclass is its transnational orientation and global bent. Most members are thoroughly cosmopolitan and often post-national in outlook, and they believe, often correctly, that they have more in common with one another, whatever their national status, than they do with citizens back home.

To Rothkopf, the global orientation of the superclass poses certain problems: the centralization of unparalleled power in the hands of a tiny, rootless minority, most obviously. But it also suggests the possibility that this group of cosmopolitan elites, in the absence of effective institutions of global government, will take the lead in providing, if only in a de facto way, stable and prudential global governance through farsighted agenda setting, leadership and policy guidance and execution. We'll see.

In any case, "Superclass" offers a useful and provocative reframing of older work on elites and brings such work up to global speed. Parts of Rothkopf's argument will seem familiar to readers steeped in the literature on globalization, and some (perhaps all) readers will find annoying the author's incessant name-dropping and nonstop self-promotion. "Superclass" gives the rest of us a peek into the lives of those who meet behind closed doors at Davos after flying there on their own Gulfstream G550s.