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Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making [Hardcover]

David Rothkopf
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Books on world elites tend to focus on the superwealthy, but political scholar Rothkopf (Running the World) has written a serious and eminently readable evaluation of the superpowerful. Until recent decades, great-power governments provided most of the superclass, accompanied by a few heads of international movements (i.e., the pope) and entrepreneurs (Rothschilds, Rockefellers). Today, economic clout—fueled by the explosive expansion of international trade, travel and communication—rules. The nation state's power has diminished, according to Rothkopf, shrinking politicians to minority power broker status. Leaders in international business, finance and the defense industry not only dominate the superclass, they move freely into high positions in their nations' governments and back to private life largely beyond the notice of elected legislatures (including the U.S. Congress), which remain abysmally ignorant of affairs beyond their borders. The superelites' disproportionate influence over national policy is often constructive, but always self-interested. Across the world, the author contends, few object to corruption and oppressive governments provided they can do business in these countries. Neither hand-wringing nor worshipful, this book delivers an unsettling account of what the immense and growing power of this superclass bodes for the future. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

“Whether you like it or not, there is no way to deny the enormous, disproportionate, concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a relatively small number of people in the world today.  David Rothkopf has vividly described who they are, and how they operate and interact, in his valuable (and often disturbing) new book.”   —Richard Holbrooke, Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

“No, no vast conspiracy runs the world. But, according to Rothkopf’s book, a tiny but diverse global elite, a Superclass, comes close. His finely-honed prose takes the reader on a joyous, entertaining, and erudite romp around the globe in search of that class.” —Alan Blinder, Former Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States

“Thanks to Rothkopf’s special blend of analysis, direct interaction with his subjects and vivid writing, this is a must read book for people interested in understanding the genesis of leadership in the new global economy.”   —Ernesto Zedillo, Director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and Former President of Mexico

“David Rothkopf has written a super book about the people presently executing an historic shift of world economic and political power and about how they are doing it and why. If you want to know how your choices are being determined and the circumstances of your life conditioned, you must read this book.” —Clyde Prestowitz, President of the Economic Strategy Institute and author of Three Billion New Capitalists

“The activities of a growing cosmopolitan elite are having profound effects. They can be highly desirable when they promote international cooperation or more problematic when the interests of the elites diverge from those of their citizens. David Rothkopf’s Superclass skillfully probes these issues and many more and should be read by all those concerned with the international economy and the evolving global system.”  —Lawrence Summers, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury

“Superclass is a timely and detailed analysis of the disproportionate power and hence responsibility of an incredibly small group of individuals: the global power elites whose strongest allegiances are not with their countries but with each other.  Understanding the implications of this shift beyond the nation-state is of great importance and Rothkopf has made a significant first step.”   —Bob Wright, Vice Chairman, General Electric, and former President and CEO, NBC Universal

“An entertaining and well researched taxonomy of the rich and powerful who shape foreign policy and business in our globalized world. Rothkopf gives us the story behind Davos Man." —Joseph E. Stiglitz, Nobel Prize Winner in Economics and author of Making Globalization Work and Globalization and its Discontents

“A masterful portrait of this century’s global elite: who they are, how they run the world, and why you should worry about the increasing concentration of influence, wealth and power they represent. An insider and a globalizer himself, Rothkopf knows his people and his politics, and uses history, psychology, economics and a lot of awfully good stories to ask troubling new questions about globalization as we know it. It’s smart and it’s fun. And if you are a globophile who trusts greater prosperity and stability to disinterested markets, it will make you think again.”     —Nancy Birdsall, President, Center for Global Development

“In his lively and brilliantly written book Superclass, David Rothkopf has captured the multitude and density of cross-border connections and interactions among the influential, rich and famous throughout the world. He compellingly describes how those links are shaping the global economic and political landscape today—and how they will powerfully influence the future institutions and politics of our planet.”   —Robert Hormats, Vice Chairman, Goldman Sachs (International) and author of The Price of Liberty: Paying for America's Wars

Praise for David Rothkopf's Running the World:

"A timely and important new book."   --Thomas Friedman, New York Times
 
"The historical narrative is like catnip for conspiracy theorists. The NSC is the ultimate Washington insiders club."   --Dan Dunsky, Toronto Globe & Mail
 
"David Rothkopf has written an enlightening insider's history of what he calls 'the committee in charge of running the world"   --Evan Thomas, New York Times Book Review
 
"Rothkopf's interest in process may be most valuable when [it] wends its way to the decision-making apparatus of the administration."   --Washington Post Book World

About the Author

David Rothkopf is the widely acclaimed author of Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power. He is the president and chief executive of Garten Rothkopf, an international advisory firm; a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and a teacher of international affairs at Columbia University’s Graduate School of International and Public Affairs.

From The Washington Post

Reviewed by Anne-Marie Slaughter

Go to www.theyrule.net. A white page appears with a deliberately shadowy image of a boardroom table and chairs. Sentences materialize: "They sit on the boards of the largest companies in America." "Many sit on government committees." "They make decisions that affect our lives." Finally, "They rule." The site allows visitors to trace the connections between individuals who serve on the boards of top corporations, universities, think thanks, foundations and other elite institutions. Created by the presumably pseudonymous Josh On, "They Rule" can be dismissed as classic conspiracy theory. Or it can be viewed, along with David Rothkopf's Superclass, as a map of how the world really works.

In Superclass, Rothkopf, a former managing director of Kissinger Associates and an international trade official in the Clinton Administration, has identified roughly 6,000 individuals who have "the ability to regularly influence the lives of millions of people in multiple countries worldwide." They are the "superclass" of the 21st century, spreading across borders in an ever thickening web, with a growing allegiance, Rothkopf argues, to each other rather than to any particular nation.

Rothkopf's archetypal member of the superclass is Blackstone Group executive Stephen Schwarzman, who is not only fabulously wealthy, but also chairman of the Kennedy Center, a board member of the New York Public Library, the New York City Ballet, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the New York City Partnership. These boards, along with the over 100 businesses Blackstone has invested in, the other business councils and advisory boards he sits on, and his Yale and Harvard education, mean that Schwarzman is only one or two affiliations away from any center of power in the world. Rothkopf actually traces the "daisy chain" of Schwarzman's connections through his board memberships -- linking him to Ratan Tata, one of India's richest men, former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo and many others. It is these links that create access that translates to influence and determines how the levers of power are pulled.

Fame alone doesn't get you into the global power elite: Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are out while Angelina Jolie and Bono are in. High office is generally enough for politicians and even their spouses, but membership in the superclass can be fleeting -- Mikhail Gorbachev and Cherie Blair are now out, while Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton are still in. Rothkopf harps on the Pareto principle of distribution, or the "80/20 rule," whereby 20 percent of the causes of anything are responsible for 80 percent of the consequences. That means 20 percent of the money-makers make 80 percent of the money and 20 percent of the politicians make 80 percent of the important decisions. That 20 percent belongs to the superclass.

On closer inspection, however, Rothkopf has no actual methodology for determining who is in and who is out. Each chapter identifies individuals who are said to count in a field, conclusions backed up by trendspotting and anecdotes about Rothkopf's encounters at Davos and New York dinner parties that make the reader feel vaguely voyeuristic. When Rothkopf ventures away from his core expertise in politics and finance, and into such subjects as asymmetrical warfare, mega-churches and freemasonry, the pastiche-like quality of his research becomes evident.

Still, Superclass is often thought-provoking. For one thing, it is as much about who is not part of the superclass as who is. As I read Rothkopf's chronicles of elite gatherings -- Davos, Bilderberg, the Bohemian Grove (all male), Fathers and Sons (all male) -- I was repeatedly struck by the near absence of women. Fortune magazine's annual Most Powerful Women Summit, the only elite gathering I know of that is restricted to women, didn't even rate a mention. And indeed, when Rothkopf summarizes "how to become a member of the superclass," his first rule is "be born a man." Only 6 percent of the superclass is female.

Superclass is written in part as a consciousness-raising exercise for members of the superclass themselves. Rothkopf worries that "the world they are making" is deeply unequal and ultimately unstable. He hopes that the current global elite will use their power to do more than egg each other on to high-profile philanthropy. Elites in radically unequal countries such as Chile, for instance, might decide to open their cozy circles of power to allow the emergence of a genuine middle class. New York bankers might realize that they can no longer peddle loans to developing countries in good times but then pressure the U.S. Treasury and the International Monetary Fund to bail out those same governments when they suddenly default on their debts (ensuring, of course, that the bankers get paid). The agribusinesses that reap billions from domestic subsidies in developed countries might consider the longer-term value of trade rather than aid for countries at the bottom of the global food chain.

Perhaps. But it's likely to take more than exhortation. In the words of former Navy Secretary John Lehman, "Power corrupts. Absolute power is kind of neat." Why would the superclass want to give it up?


Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpt

Gentiana is a small restaurant that would scarcely warrant a second glance in any other village in Europe. It is rather traditional, only slightly more charming than the bland shops and modest hotels around it. One nearby storefront offers a remarkable array of Swiss Army knives, another boxes of chocolates, another fur hats and mountain gear. The restaurant has a cozy, neighborhood feel to it. Beside the door there is a blackboard highlighting a few specials, and on the ground floor there may be seating for twenty if they are both thin enough and friendly enough. Upstairs there are a few small rooms for private parties, the biggest of which seats ten people squeezed in on either side of a long narrow table. Most of its character comes from a feel of woody intimacy, the dark wood façade, dark wood floors, dark wood tables. In fact, for all its charm, it is definitely not a place for claustrophobes—or people with an extreme fear of splinters.
 The reason to go to Gentiana is the fondue, especially the cheese fondue, which is offered in robust portions that recall an era before cardiologists. My wife, Adrean, has a special weakness for fondue, and every year that we have gone to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos we have gone to Gentiana for her birthday. We make reservations long in advance because during the week of the January meetings, which are attended each year by more than 2,000 business and government leaders from around the world, getting a table at Gentiana is not much easier than getting one at renowned eateries like Aragawa in Tokyo, Gordon Ramsay in London, or Le Bernardin in New York. Perhaps more surprisingly, for that one week the clientele at this humble Swiss bistro looks pretty much the same as what you might find at those world-class restaurants.
 Of course, even during that week, there are still a few tables at Gentiana occupied by locals. One regular is a particularly garrulous drunk who loves to hobnob with the CEOs, heads of state, and rock stars who are wedged in, elbow to elbow, spinning hunks of bread on long forks in the pots of bubbling Gruyère. The local speaks only Swiss-German to the polyglot crowds around him, and few understand him, although judging by his demeanor the casual observer is not sure whether that has to do with the language he speaks or the local beer that he favors. No matter. He smiles and they smile, and the general effect is cheerful and relaxed.
 One afternoon during a recent Davos, my wife and I were hurrying along the sidewalk on our way to Gentiana. This can be dangerous, as the locals do not shovel away the snow and ice lurks just about everywhere. In fact, attendees at Davos can see with some regularity central bank governors and senior executives of the IMF and other distinguished middle-aged men and women swaddled in cashmere, calfskin, and politically incorrect pelts of many origins launched skyward, only to land on their broader, softer regions. We walked gingerly, therefore, but with purpose, knowing we were meeting our friends in just a few minutes.
 The weather was typical. A light snow was falling. It was very cold. But the Alpine air was crisp and dry and invigorating. We chatted about the meetings, who we had seen and who we hoped to run into. As we walked, we reflexively did what most of the visitors to this small mountain town do: We glanced at the people passing us in the street, trying to determine who they were. (Given the nature of Davos, they were likely to have been somebody.) It’s a ritual made easier by the fact that everyone at the meeting has to wear a badge around his or her neck at all times. The badge is used to get through the many security checkpoints—there are at least two Swiss soldiers and policemen in Davos for every delegate who attends the meetings—to register for sessions, and to let everyone know who you are. Your name is on the badge, along with the organization you represent. So too is your picture. People tend to walk with their badges dangling in plain sight so they don’t have to fumble with them getting in and out of buildings or past police. That’s how it was for everyone except for the universally recognizable—people like Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Tony Blair, Bono, or Angelina Jolie. The badge-scanning move is so ubiquitous you might call it the Davos dip: Bend the knee slightly, cast a subtle glance downward, assess and move on.
 Leaving the Congress Centre and walking along Davos’s main street, the Promenade, we passed Thierry Desmarest, the CEO of Total; a small cluster of Harvard professors; a senior executive of Saudi Aramco; and a woman pulling her two small children on a sled. (She was local and the sled seemed to hint at the reason they don’t shovel the sidewalks.) We stopped briefly to chat with Tom Donohue, the CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who happens to be my wife’s boss, then paused a few steps later to chat with an Indian-born U.S. venture capitalist with whom I had some business. It was a typical sample. Five minutes along the Davos Promenade in January offered a cavalcade of freeze-dried economic leaders from three continents.
 About two blocks from Gentiana, I was grousing about how one of the conversations that I had most wanted to have had resulted in a frustrating series of near misses. The objective was a long-delayed chat with Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian author of The Alchemist. Coelho has sold more than one hundred million copies of his books worldwide and is, after the Harry Potter  author, J. K. Rowling, the second-best-selling author on the planet. He is also one of the few cultural regulars at Davos, one of a handful of people who might offer a different perspective on the Davos zeitgeist. We had intended to meet almost a year earlier but, due to a series of scheduling mishaps, had repeatedly failed to do so. Finally, we aimed for Davos, but I had yet to lay eyes on him. What did I expect from a man who lived on the other side of the world and was constantly in motion—a Brazilian who lived much of the time in Europe and sold many of his books in Russia? There was a little bit of hubris in thinking we might ever be able to end up in the same place at the same time. And then: “Oh, my God,” said a voice I did not recognize, “it’s you.”
 A smallish man in a fur hat was staring at my name badge. He had a graying goatee, and he greeted me like a long-lost cousin. It was Coelho, appearing almost miraculously out of the Alpine mist as if conjured by our conversation.
 Passing along the sidewalk from the Congress Centre where we had just heard an address by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and comments from the Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, through the stream of big name boulevardiers, and then walking directly into this icon of the global literary scene—it was made clear again that Davos was truly the incarnation of Marshall McLuhan’s global village. It was like small-town Planet Earth, or the once-a-year Brigadoon of globalization: a community connected to everywhere and, in one way or another, to everyone. Indeed, during the course of this meeting, top trade ministers would caucus to try unsuccessfully to rescue global trade talks, Africa activists would meet with corporate chiefs and political leaders to seek funding for medical aid programs, global warming would “go mainstream” as mostly American skeptics were persuaded by session after session of expert views, and proponents of different solutions for dealing with everything from anxiety about immigrants to anxiety about terrorism would present their views directly to those in a position to implement them. If, as Hillary Clinton has asserted, it takes a vill
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