The rise of the superclass

Are Bill Clinton, Rupert Murdoch, the pope and Osama bin Laden part of a new global power elite that may make traditional governments obsolete?

Published March 14, 2008 11:30AM (EDT)

In the first chapter of David Rothkopf's "Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making," the author quotes Mark Malloch Brown, a British minister of state and former deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, recalling what it was like to walk with his wife through a reception in New York for the World Economic Forum. The WEF puts on the famous annual meeting of business leaders, political figures, NGO heads, scientists and other movers and shakers, nicknamed after the small Swiss alpine town where it takes place, Davos. After crossing the room and shaking countless manicured hands in the process, the couple turned to each other and marveled that "we walk though the Davos party and know more people than when we're walking across the village green in the town we live in."

Brown is far from the only one who could tell such a tale. "Davos man" is an epithet coined by the conservative scholar Samuel Huntington to describe the very specific type that attends the conference. These are people who, as Huntington wrote, "have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite's global operations."

Not everyone Rothkopf writes about in "Superclass" is a Davos man, but despite his efforts to remain impartial toward "the global power elite" he describes, you can tell that the elect milieu of the WEF gives him a palpable thrill. The book opens with a scene of the author making his way through the town's frozen streets, recognizing CEOs, oil company executives and Harvard professors on his way to a fondue restaurant. Suddenly, he's greeted effusively by a bestselling inspirational writer with whom he has been trading e-mail: Paulo Coelho, "an icon of the global literary scene"! (The literary scene? I don't think so, though Coelho certainly is a publishing phenomenon.)

Rothkopf's credible, if not especially original argument in "Superclass" is that over the past several decades a "global elite" has emerged whose connections to each other have become more significant than their ties to their home nations and governments. They schmooze regularly at conferences like Davos, go to the same schools, serve together on corporate and nonprofit boards, and above all do business with each other constantly -- to the point that they have become a kind of culture in themselves, a "class without a country," as Rothkopf puts it. Furthermore, these people are "the new leadership class for our era."

A former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration and an officer in an assortment of "advisory" firms (including Kissinger Associates, run by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and the consulting company Rothkopf himself founded, Garten Rothkopf), Rothkopf is an insider of sorts, well enough connected to sit in on meetings of power brokers without quite being one himself. He also writes Op-Eds on international affairs for major newspapers and is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, positions that require the display of some critical distance. "Superclass" isn't as condemnatory as Naomi Klein's anti-globalization manifesto "No Logo," let alone the conspiracy theorizing of "The Iron Triangle," Dan Briody's exposé of the Carlyle Group, but it doesn't merely fawn over its subjects, either.

Rothkopf announces that he and his researchers have identified "just over 6,000" people who match his definition of the superclass -- that is, who have met complicated (and vaguely explained) metrics designed to determine "the ability to regularly influence the lives of millions of people in multiple countries worldwide." These include heads of state and religious and military leaders -- even the occasional pop star, like Bono -- but the core membership is businessmen: hedge fund managers, technology entrepreneurs and private equity investors.

Money alone doesn't cut the mustard. A fabulously wealthy widow living out the end of a quiet life isn't in the superclass; you must not only possess power, but also freely exercise it. Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group, is the paradigm: In addition to running a huge private equity firm, he sits on the boards of a half-dozen cultural foundations and belongs to a laundry list of forums and councils, including the WEF. (He also granted Rothkopf a lunch interview at the Four Seasons Grill Room, as the author takes pains to inform his readers.)

The pope is a member of the superclass, as is Osama bin Laden, who can undoubtedly claim influence over current international affairs, even if he sometimes lives in a cave. The Russian illegal arms dealer Viktor "Merchant of Death" Bout is a member, as are Rupert Murdoch and Bill Clinton, who, while no longer commander in chief of the world's remaining superpower, nevertheless heads the Clinton Global Intiative, a brand new dynamo in the area of international philanthropy.

Rothkopf's outlook on these players is roughly Clintonian. He believes in capitalism as an engine for prosperity, but he's leery of the free-market gospel that dictates that "market reforms" ought to be imposed on faltering economies whatever the social and political costs. "It is true," he writes, "that governments have been unable to do much of what they should do to improve the welfare of their people, and in a vast number of cases markets have done much more." But the "free-market" moniker is misleading, since such a thing doesn't really exist. All markets are tweaked by governments to some extent, and what the preachers of the free-market religion never acknowledge is that their own favorite case studies are surreptitiously finagled to benefit the already rich.

Taking a dinner party at the home of Chile's finance minister, Andres Velasco, as an example, Rothkopf describes his uneasy response to the oligarchs around him. He realizes that they embrace the market-oriented philosophy of the "Chicago Boys," Milton Friedman's University of Chicago disciples, but only so long as the attendant suffering is limited to Chile's lower classes. They quietly resist reforms that might nibble away at their iron control of the nation's industries. "While many of the most powerful people in the country embrace 'progress,'" Rothkopf observes of Chile, "they use their energy and political capital primarily on behalf of the changes that benefit them most directly. Elites in Chile have implicitly or explicitly resisted the changes that might create more competition, more entrepreneurship, more access to capital for the poor and middle classes." As a result, though Chile is touted as Latin America's great economic success story, profound inequities in its society have gone comparatively unchanged.

"Superclass" makes a case that today's elites are an improvement on those of the past: Instead of inherited aristocracy or sheer military might, power is more likely to go to the smart, ambitious and hardworking. Membership is fluid to an unprecedented extent, with new people muscling their way into the inner circle and slackers dropping out of the bottom all the time. Still, as Rothkopf points out, the ranks of this elite are overwhelmingly older males of European descent who graduated from prestigious Western colleges. Critics have been complaining for years that Davos is too Eurocentric, one reason why the Boao Forum for Asia was started for Eastern financial honchos in 1998.

Above all, like anybody else -- in fact, more than anybody else, given the obsessive, often narcissistic energy required of moguls, politicians and would-be messiahs -- these people are self-interested. However gifted, they should not be allowed to operate in a vacuum. The difficulty is that most of them exercise their power transnationally, while laws and regulations are confined within the borders of nation-states (which Rothkopf, in classic Davos-man style, regards as doomed). "We must resist the temptation to reflexively attack elites," he writes, since human societies need leaders and this is an able bunch, but elites ought to be more accountable to the millions of people whose lives they affect. Otherwise, as history (and the current upsurge in religious extremism) shows, they may provoke a violent and chaotic backlash.

Nevertheless, the likelihood of a world government forming to handle the situation is remote -- not while nation-states have any life left in them to defend their sovereignty. International institutions -- the U.N., especially, but also the IMF and the World Bank -- are weak, or weakening, and are hemorrhaging credibility. The answer, according to Rothkopf, is not global government, but "governance," fewer formal agreements and mechanisms among international entities. The registration and management of Internet domain names (via a collection of organizations) is one example of this sort of governance, orderly and helpful in a way you wouldn't automatically associate with Rothkopf's ominous-sounding definition of the term: "Fulfilling government roles with mechanisms" that "lack the full traditional power, authority or mandates of governments."

Yikes! Rational as it may sound to set up such systems, they just aren't directly answerable to the populace at large -- they're undemocratic. Of course, as several of the superclass muckety-mucks Rothkopf talks to complain, most of the officials who are democratically selected by the masses don't really understand -- and perhaps aren't even capable of understanding -- the complex global issues that need to be negotiated. American congressmen, senators and even presidents know how to get elected by capitalizing on delusional fears of gay marriage and illegal aliens, but their constituents don't demand that they master high-level economic or scientific concepts. Chances are, the voters haven't even heard of those concepts, let alone formulated opinions on them. How can even the superclass be accountable to a public that can't (or won't) comprehend what they do?

Still, Rothkopf insists that elites ought to look out for the disadvantaged. "If the global decisions that take place out there only serve the powerful," he writes, "and many of the people making the decision are not elected or chosen by the people, the average person is going to recognize they have less influence. So it won't just be unfair, it will produce a backlash." One such "backlash" is the administration of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, a leader characterized by Rothkopf as part of "the global network of antiglobalists." Chavez has made political theater out of taunting and thwarting the global elite. No wonder one of the book's chapter sections is titled "Is a Crisis Inevitable?"

Rothkopf's idea is that the superclass ought to be smart enough to foresee any such crisis and head it off by doing more to make the currently disenfranchised feel like "stakeholders" in the new global order. The superclass should recognize that "order and legitimacy are the allies of both business and those who seek social stability." Furthermore, I suppose, they should put pressure on fellow members who step out of line with this program. The upside to the "closely knit" connections between the globe's top players is that, like any community, they can use exclusion and ostracism to punish those who misbehave.

This is a tall order indeed. Of course, the power elite are not entirely indifferent to the world's problems. The Davos conference often spotlights issues like poverty in Africa and global warming, and high-profile charities such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative suggest that at least some of the superclass feel obliged to step in where national governments have failed to do anything substantive. Deciding on how best to gentle the masses, how to settle on standards of global economic conduct and how to enforce those standards won't be easy, though. Fortunately for the superclass and anyone seeking to work with them, there are consulting companies like Garten Rothkopf ("an international advisory firm specializing in emerging markets investing and risk management related services") to turn to!

In the concluding pages of "Superclass" it becomes increasingly difficult to dispel the impression that you have just read what amounts to a 380-page business card. Many recent nonfiction books on "current affairs" are little more than that. Organized around a catchy concept and extensively researched by underlings, they win their authors jobs in think tanks and speaking engagements at corporate workshops and conferences -- all of which pay much, much more than anyone can expect to make on a book. There are a handful of important ideas in "Superclass," it's true, but many of them have been gleaned from other, more original thinkers. There are also a lot of facts and statistics, presumably gathered by Rothkopf's assistants.

The other thing that you'll find in "Superclass" is names, lots and lots of names. At times, Rothkopf's breathless citing of notables, accompanied by the banal details of their C.V.s and hobbies, made me waspish enough to mutter an old saying of indeterminate origins: Great minds talk about ideas, average minds talk about things and small minds talk about people. Yet, to be fair, people are among the things that Rothkopf has to offer his clients, specifically his knowledge of and acquaintances among the very superclass he celebrates and scolds. One thing "Superclass" assiduously demonstrates is that whatever the mistakes of the global elite, Rothkopf has been around to witness a few of them firsthand.

This explains why "Superclass" lacks the one thing that would probably guarantee it a spot on the bestseller list: the actual names of the 6,000 members of the superclass, as defined by Rothkopf's criteria. The list exists, Rothkopf assures his readers, but publishing it would be "an exercise in futility." CEOs lose jobs and retire, tycoons suffer financial setbacks and even get thrown in jail. Therefore, "the day after it was published," the list "would be obsolete."

Besides, Rothkopf sniffs, "publishing such a list immediately generates debate about who's in and who's out, and obscures the bigger issues involved." This shows a surprising degree of high-mindedness in a book that is significantly occupied with mini-profiles of the rich and powerful, whom they know, how they operate and where they eat lunch. If printing the list coarsens the conversation, then why compile it to begin with? If, as Rothkopf intimates, the list was a necessary part of the book's research yet publishing it would nevertheless be a detriment to the project, then why mention it at all? Why let drop the tantalizingly specific number of 6,000 names?

Despite his demurrals, I'm sure there are at least a few conversations that Rothkopf would not regard as fatally cheapened by the sharing of his list of the rich and powerful. To the contrary, those conversations would no doubt be very expensive indeed, taking place between Garten Rothkopf and the clients who pay for its consulting services (which surely cost more than the $26 cover price of "Superclass"). In the end, this might be the most important message contained between the covers of "Superclass": David Rothkopf's got the list, and you know where to find him.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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