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Issue No. 120-b (February 2009) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Rothkopf's institutional power
meets Shirky's Internet power

Summary: David Rothkopf, a member in good standing of the global elite, concludes that poor and ordinary people need global institutions of their own (in Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making).  But Internet maven Clay Shirky makes the case that our new forms of “social communication” are increasingly enabling us to challenge and improve all institutions (in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations).  Is there common ground here?

I. Institutional power will carry us through!

For years I’d been waiting for a member of the global elite to tell all – what it’s like at the Davos and Bilderberg conferences, what his or her fellow power-wielders are intent on doing, etc.  There are already plenty of books attacking the global elite, invariably with political axes to grind, but I wanted something more objective and useful.

Now at last we have that book – David Rothkopf’s Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making (Farrar, Straus, 2008) – and the author is as complex and many-sided as I knew he’d have to be.

Rothkopf was managing director of Kissinger Associates, then co-founded a consultancy with Anthony Lake (another former U.S. national security adviser) for what Rothkopf himself calls the “military-industrial complex.”  But he’s also been a trade maven in the Clinton Administration, and he’s worked with Rob Stein at the left-leaning Democracy Alliance.

Rothkopf fondly remembers reading C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite in his Contemporary Civilization course at Columbia, and that extraordinary book is his model here.  He is less rigorous than sociologist Mills, but he’s a better writer – he started out as a financial journalist – and he tells much better anecdotes.

Mills’s power elite was predominantly American, and its scope was largely national.  Rothkopf’s superclass is literally global.  Its task is to run the world – no one else being in a position to do so – and its 6,000 or so members are increasingly non-American and even non-European (though still overwhelmingly male).

As Rothkopf sees it, they’re drawn from all the important “power clusters” – not just politics but business, finance, the military, and the world of culture and ideas.  They turn over more rapidly than Mills’s national elite (since more of them derive their influence from transient positions in politics or business), but they’re even more powerful than Mills’s elite – at any one time, a couple of thousand of them control two-thirds of the world’s assets, while others have worldwide influence without much money.

Although Rothkopf does not want to do away with the existence of a global elite (“we will always want and need leaders,” he says), he is deeply concerned that the current crop – bright though it may generally be – is too self-interested to provide the leadership the world needs.  So from time to time he exhorts them in his book to do better.

But he doesn’t think public jawboning (even from a fellow member of the elite) is nearly enough; nor does he think philanthropy or “social responsibility” is enough; nor does he think even traditional political liberalism (giving the “masses” a voice) is enough.

What ordinary people need, in Rothkopf’s view, is their own global institutions, to parallel the Davoses and Bilderbergs of the world.  And not just World Social Forums, but institutions with power.  “Without the emergence of countervailing power centers to represent and ultimately institutionalize the will of the people at large,” he says, “we will continue to get only partial solutions” to the world’s problems.

Somewhere, Mills is smiling.

II. Internet power will carry us through!

When Clay Shirky spoke at the New America Foundation last spring, the well-dressed journalists and policy analysts who crowded into Washington DC’s leading “post-partisan” think tank sat riveted to their seats, and not just because Shirky stuck out like a sore thumb among them with his shaved head and maroon shirt with rolled-up sleeves.

He may be the hottest Internet guru in the U.S. right now, and his message, powerfully delivered at New America as well as in his book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (Penguin, 2008), bears special relevance to everyone who cares about politics, not least of all those like the New America attendees who depend on established institutions for their status and influence.

As he says in his book, we are undergoing one big change in this country (and the world) that is so significant that it’s akin to a revolution: forming groups is becoming easier and easier, and is happening faster and faster, as a result of our new “social tools” (Internet, mobile phones, text messaging, etc.) and the “social forms” they’ve spawned (Meetup, Facebook, MySpace, etc.).

And from newspapers to corporations to governments, no established institutions are safe: “traditional institutional forms . . . will continue to exist, but their purchase on modern life will weaken as novel alternatives for group action arise.”

Shirky makes a good case, and if you’re less than familiar with the Internet, social networking, peer-to-peer communication, etc., then this is one of those rare books that will make you see the world – and our political possibilities – differently.

You’ll learn how text messaging has led not just to frivolous neo-Yippie behavior on the streets of New York (“flash mobs,” synchronized behavior that appears spontaneous, like people showing up on a stone ledge in Central Park and making bird sounds), but to startlingly effective protests against the repressive government in Belarus (people showing up in the Minsk town square and all silently smiling at one another).

You’ll learn how the Internet was used to start a movement for an airline passenger’s bill of rights.  You’ll learn how Facebook was used to force a bank to give in to student lenders’ demands.  You’ll learn how Meetup is being used to identify latent groups and help them come together.

Is this new revolution a largely positive one?  To his credit, Shirky remains neutral on that key question, since it’s still so early (“the value of new sources of information like Wikipedia cannot be measured against the increased resilience of networked terrorist groups”).  You can’t miss his enthusiasm, though, when he argues that spontaneously formed, “self-organized,” temporary groups may have a “more profound effect” in our political future than more traditional lobbying groups.

I would ask a different question: How relevant are these new technologies and social forms to giving ordinary people an appropriate amount of power over their health and education and welfare, and over their government’s actions abroad?  A capacity to roil the waters on occasion is not the same as power in my book.

III. Both / and

A metastasizing number of transient protest and pressure groups will definitely roil the waters . . . and that’s good.  But for Shirky’s “Everybody” to truly “Come” – for ordinary people to have access to the power and influence all of us need to be fully part of the human community – I wouldn’t rest until I saw it guaranteed via the existence of something like Rothkopf’s countervailing INSTITUTIONS above.  (And of course I’d want Shirky’s plethora of groups to go after them too.)



You can get a good sense of both authors above through YouTube.  See, e.g.,

David Rothkopf, lecture at Middlebury College (YouTube videotape), September 28, 2007, 63 minutes; and 

Clay Shirky, lecture at Harvard Law School (YouTube videotape), February 28, 2008, 42 minutes.




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