The most familiar answers to this question are so poisoned by paranoia that it is tempting to dismiss the question itself. If the Jews are so powerful, then why have they had such a dreadful time of things? If the men and women of Davos are so mighty, then why do they keep messing everything up?
Yet the fact that so many people give foolish answers to a question does not discredit the question. The rise of nation states produced national ruling classes. It would be odd if the current integration of the world economy did not produce new global elites—business people and financiers who run global companies and global politicians who steer supra-national organisations such as the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund.
David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argues that these elites constitute nothing less than a new global “superclass”. They have all the clubby characteristics of the old national ruling classes, but with the vital difference that they operate on the global stage, far from mere national electorates.
They attend the same universities (Mr Rothkopf calculates that Harvard, Stanford and the University of Chicago are now the world’s top three superclass producers). They are groomed in a handful of world-spanning institutions such as Goldman Sachs. They belong to the same clubs—the Council on Foreign Relations in New York is a particular favourite—and sit on each other’s boards of directors. Many of them shuttle between the public and private sectors. They meet at global events such as the World Economic Forum at Davos and the Trilateral Commission or—for the crème de la crème—the Bilderberg meetings or the Bohemian Grove seminars that take place every July in California.
Mr Rothkopf makes a fascinating tour of the world of the superclass. He opens the door to the office of the head of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, on the top floor of Goldman’s tower on New York’s Broad Street. He visits the factory that customises Gulfstream jets (every year nearly 10% of Gulfstream’s clients attend Davos). He calls on the Carlyle Group where financiers and former presidents get together to make each other richer. And he offers a tour of the weird proceedings of the Bohemian Grove meetings, which Richard Nixon described as “the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine.”
“Superclass” is such a wide-ranging book that it inevitably also raises quibbles. Mr Rothkopf never quite defines the boundaries of his subject. Is he talking about the super-rich? Or about the super-influential? Do the people he talks about really constitute a “class”? Or are they an agglomeration of competing elites with different agendas? Mr Rothkopf adds to the confusion by chasing all manner of hares, including the rise of internet-enabled jihadists.
Mr Rothkopf, whose CV includes a spell working for Kissinger Associates and a period as the deputy under-secretary of commerce for international trade, is much better informed about America than he is about the rest of the world. He is fascinating on the revolving door between the Pentagon and the arms industry, for example, but he says next to nothing about the rise of the EU, one of the great building blocks of the trans-national world. His exposition of the wonders of Davos is more breathless than illuminating.
Still, none of this should put off potential readers: “Superclass” is a pioneering study of a subject that has often been the preserve of conspiracy theorists. Mr Rothkopf is anything but a crank, and he is right when he says that, these days, the most influential people around the world are also the most global people.
He is also admirably ambivalent about his subject. He worries about surging inequality—the richest 1% of humans own 40% of the planet’s wealth—and about the rumbling backlash against so much unaccountable power. But he points out that, in a world where most global institutions are lumbering and antiquated, members of the superclass have repeatedly stepped in to put the global system to rights. Let us hope that they have not lost their touch.