Hedgehogs, Foxes, and the Idea of a Global Elite

Hedgehogs, Foxes, and the Idea of a Global Elite.

Alfred North Whitehead once wisely remarked that, to understand the nature of an age, don’t concentrate on its visible disputes, but on the ideas that even the opponents agree on. But he might have added that you you also have to look at the way people try to understand things in general. In particular, you have to distinguish between all those who view the world as Platonist hedgehogs, drawn always to Grand Theories or constructing ones of their own, and those who are Aristotelian foxes, willing to regard all kinds of important events in the world as having little or nothing to do with each other.

Applying Whitehead’s principle to the years from just before the 2008 Crash to the present, it is easy to find the great hedgehog accord. It has been a growing preoccupation with the concept of a single elite. Academic social scientists now join with internet conspiracy cranks, Tea Partiers with Wall Street Occupiers, FoxNews talking heads with pious Guardian pundits. All have been seizing on the term lately, although with different choices of favourite charter members.

This breadth of acceptance is new. Conspiracy theories of ‘the elite’, of course, have been around for over a century, often declaring it to be staffed with Freemasons and Illuminati. But even the less zany ones have appeared as paranoid fantasies to most sensible people. Several developments have prepared the way for the arrival of rational ideas of a new global elite.

The pre-Crash decade-long expansion of the financial sector was one major cause. For example, in the middle of the decade, the investment banking arm of then-mighty Citigroup published a report that candidly declared that they saw no point in even pretending that the bank was still operating in a democracy, but rather was now in a ‘plutocracy’. They didn’t even bother to flatter their wealthy clients as a new ‘aristocracy’, ready instead simply to hail a new world of ‘rule by the rich’, with no apologetic qualifications.

Then there has been the highly visible impact of the dashing Niall Ferguson, Oxford history don turned American Ivy League professor and TV pundit. Ferguson’s most similar predecessor a few decades earlier as celebrity historian had been A. J. P. Taylor, but Taylor had been a narrower British phenomenon, and a writer of social and political history. Ferguson has not only been more Anglo-American and ‘global’, but has specialized in the economic history of Top People, in books like The Cash Nexus, The Ascent of Money, and The Rothschilds.

Then, just a few months before the Crash, a thinktank writer and consultant named David Rothkrug attempted an exact definition. His book, Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They are Making, went beyond the annual ‘Top 400’ wealth rankings provided by Forbes for many years. Assuming a world population of six billion, rather than the seven lately reached, Rothkopf identified a ‘one in a million’ group of six thousand men and women, as a new international self-conscious ‘power elite’. According to him, they increasingly have more in common with each other than with anyone else, including the non-elite people of their countries of origin. He did not include all of the world’s hyper rich, excluding inheritors more fond of privacy than of schmoozing, but did count the CEOs of the very largest corporations and banks, threw in about two dozen of the most powerful political leaders, and added a sprinkling of superstar celebrities, like Bono and Angelina Jolie.

The bold cynics of soon-to-be-humbled Citigroup, Ferguson’s popular history, and Rothkopf’s nose-pressed-up-against-the-window reporting, all began making their impact on journalists. ‘Global elite’ articles have now appeared in Newsweek, The Economist, and The Atlantic. The media in general have also become fascinated with individual wealth concentration. Various studies through the last decade have estimated that the top 10% of adults own 85% of global wealth, and more startling, the top 1% alone own about 40%.

However, note that even a mere top hundredth of this top 1% could scarcely be comfortably accommodated at the annual gatherings at Davos. .01% is still no less than 700,000 people. .01% of the U. S. alone would be over 30,000. That is making the highly unrealistic assumption that the super-rich are as likely to build their several homes in Chad or Mongolia as in Connecticut or Florida. The real American and European figures will obviously be tens of thousands higher.

This alone allows for some foxy Aristotelian scepticism. How can comprehensible purposes be assigned to such large statistical assemblages? Especially of owners of assets so large as to require subordinate armies of fund managers merely to keep track of their possessions? Ferguson and Rothkopf, and other writers like them, seem to have forgotten why sensible people laughed off old-fashioned conspiracy theories. The latter, along with complete fictions, have sometimes drawn on selected real historical events. They still produced fantastic explanations, because the conspiracists failed to recognize that the only real links between the people and events that obsessed them were found entirely in their own consciousness.

There is a lesson in this for more respectable scholars and journalists. Elites in the plural are found in every human activity, those at the top often have power over others in the same activity, and people at the top in countless fields can afford to stay in the same luxury hotels. The great difficulty of all theories of a single elite, however, is that the factor that gives elite status in any field is only in that field itself. It will only be erratically true, and frequently not at all, that social interaction between top people in different fields has much to do with the way they actually exercise power, much more a ‘vertical’ process than a ‘horizontal’ one, save in the cosy but essentially secondary area of shared philanthropic projects. Most human beings, not just the completely powerless, but the hundreds of millions in intermediate levels of wealth and authority, are mostly far more concerned with the power of those immediately above them than with the distant mighty. You have to be yourself a bank employee, or be a fairly grand fromage in the corporate world, for example, to feel directly the impact of decisions made by JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon; if you conduct business on any lesser scale, you will be more worried about the decisions of your own local bank manager. Much the same experience of the locality of power applies to hierarchies of bureaucrats, academics, professionals, and media people.

Even a corporate CEO, a bank president, and a top political leader or bureaucrat who attended the same university, eat in the same restaurants and frequent the same clubs, are not necessarily going to have any extended common purpose. Industrialists and investors do not like or trust even their own bankers at times, much less their business and financial rivals, however frequently they exchange frozen smiles in their common venues.

Half a century ago, David Riesman, a Chicago lawyer before he became a famous cultural critic, provided an insight about elite theories that remains valid. He argued that, for Americans especially, and for both reactionaries and radicals, belief in a remote and all-powerful ruling group, even a malignant one, was preferable to a haunting deeper fear. What everyone from professors to prostitutes observe, in every modern American metropolis, is a buzzing profusion of peaceful commerce and blatant crime, brilliant achievement and brutal thuggery, daily tragedies and daily comedies. The most frightening thought that can arise from this is not that it all serves the purposes of a distant and possibly evil cabal. It is that, in the end, this is all there is. NO ONE is really minding the store.

Riesman still trumps Rothkopf. All the many in the world who are not only powerless, but who live in an environment that constantly reminds them of this powerlessness, like most university students and most journalists, are always subject to the hedgehog temptation: to view the few who are powerful as needing to conspire to exercise that power. But elite tycoons and elite financiers clash with each other as readily as bicyclists and taxidrivers, and have little more idea about what news awaits us all tomorrow.


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