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Is the Transnational Ruling Class Ending?

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An interesting argument, but I think it screams of choosing the evidence to make the conclusion it wants to make:

While Naím argues that what is happening is an end to power, what he aptly describes is more like a destabilization of old structures and a shifting of power. In terms of culture, Naím sees the undermining of traditional cultures in almost entirely positive terms, as an unleashing of people’s senses of possibility. But of course, along with the undermining of traditional cultures comes the spreading of capitalist forms of culture, and that can be seen as the spread of newer forms of power as much as it can be seen as the undermining of old ones.

Naím’s book can be seen as an elegy for what sociologist William Robinson calls the “transnational ruling class.” From the end of World War II until very recently, it looked to careful observers as if the Group of 5, the Group of 20, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were able to control the rules under which the economies of the world functioned. And their power was so great that any national government that wanted to do things according to a different set of rules would be denied access to the capital needed to keep its economy flowing, and pressured until it played the political and economic games by the rules those at the top of these institutions required. Thus, that transnational ruling class had enormous power over both economic and political systems.

Robinson argues that the last part of the 20th century was characterized by a system of polyarchy, where power came to transcend national governments, and instead rested in the hands of the transnational ruling class and its governing institutions. He argues that national elections became not as significant as they once had been as mechanisms for deciding how a group of people chose to live.

And yet, Naím is partially right. We do seem to be entering a period in which the ability of the transnational ruling class to provide an orderly atmosphere for those interests to operate is crumbling. But the system of capitalism, which those institutions work to manage, continues on its merry way. The power of capitalist processes to destroy people’s lives is as powerful as ever.

What has changed is that those capitalist processes are less able to be managed by a cohesive transnational ruling class, and they are less accountable to any particular regime of control. That is largely a result of finance capital coming to dominate over the more productive forms of capital that had previously been dominant, and a result of the neoliberal policies of those very transnational institutions that have spread an ideology of laissez faire.

The power of individuals at the heads of major corporations, or at the heads of transnational institutions, does seem to be destabilizing. The forms of power that Naím and people like him have held in the past century — the power as heads of corporations, as people in government and as people at the head of transnational organizations — is shifting, and those people can no longer feel secure in their ability make things happen.

And yet for the rest of us, it is still the case that transnational capitalist processes rule our world. They are just ruling in a less orderly fashion. And whereas Robinson, the sociologist, sees the transnational ruling class anchored in institutions such as the World Trade Organization and World Bank as the rulers of this new world order, it may be that Naím is right — that even those forms of governance over the capitalist systems are losing their grip on power.

I don’t know. There’s something here. Certainly the power of international finance capital is very strong. Arguably it is stronger than government; in any case, as with the global race to the bottom in labor standards and the tax avoidance schemes of the wealthy, the wealthy have become quite adept at playing nations against each other to give rich people the better deal. But there’s nothing particularly inevitable about this or the power of finance capital more generally. Governments can indeed tame those financial institutions or work with those institutions or shape those institutions. Moreover, my first thought when reading this argument was that the real power shift after World War II was a) the end of colonialism and b) the end of the Cold War. Maybe the rise of new forms of capitalism is third. Of course, these things are all interconnected. Neocolonialism through domination of poor nations by international financial capital is a very real thing and the choices governments can make are severely constricted by this capital. But I think we more need examples than Greece to really make this argument about the decline of the global ruling class effectively.

Figured it would make an interesting comment thread at least.

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  • LeeEsq

    You need to define the transnational ruling class first. There are attempts to take stabs at it but nothing that comes close to an even plurality agreement. According to some definitions, many people on this blog including myself might qualify as transnational ruling class because we are educated upper middle class professional people with a secular cosmopolitan outlook and believe in immigration and LGBT rights.

    • Rusty SpikeFist

      It would be a pretty dumb definition.

      • LeeEsq

        It is but like many dumb things, it is believed by millions of people.

    • BigHank53

      Do you control enough liquid assets that paying for lobbying makes good financial sense? I’d put the lower limit at around a million dollars, personally; much less than that and it’s just not worth the effort to push on the laws. So there aren’t many people specifically working to keep capital free of constraints and obligations while keeping workers under the boot–but the chokepoints of our governments give them a lot of power.

      A $200,000 investment will buy you a full-time lobbyist who does nothing but work towards your goals, checking every tax bill, every treaty, and letting you know which political action committees will put their thumbs on the right scales. All day, every day.

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      “taking stabs at it” is sounding better and better.

  • j_kay

    To me, Obama’s post-oligarchy.

    • Vance Maverick

      With that qualifier up front, it’s pretty hard to argue with! But I am curious what you mean.

    • DrDick

      Hardly. Ivy League educated and part of the Chicago Machine, is very much at the heart of the oligarchy. He is less a smashing of the oligarchy than an opening up of it.

      • jroth95

        The Chicago Machine is such a wonderful thing.Basel bows before it, Beijing makes obeisance, Belarus trembles (Belarus? Forget it, he’s rolling).

        If the Chicago Machine can’t control Springfield, why are we supposed to believe that it controls—or is part of the control of—anything in the world that’s more important than civil service jobs in the 8th-most* globally important city in North America?

        *ballpark number; definitely not top 5

        • DrDick

          The Chicago Machine has always promoted and protected the interests of the establishment (aka, “the oligarchy”). I did not say that Obama was, prior to becoming president, part of it, but he is very much part of the support network that serves them (as with the TTIP).

      • I’d actually see most Ivy League professionals,as members of a kind of permanent adviser class, like the Horta in the Dominion, though probably less reliably obsequious in many cases.

        • CP

          *Vorta.

          Horta are the rock-creature things from TOS that burrow through the ground and lay thousands of silicon eggs. Vorta are the bureaucrats who run the Dominion’s day to day business in DS9.

        • Linnaeus

          Paging James Burnham.

      • twbb

        Obama is way too enamored of technocracy to be post-oligarchy. I don’t know if he’s about opening it up so much as trying to make it so those on the bottom face fewer of the disadvantages of being on the bottom.

  • DrDick

    I think he is correct that there is a power transition going on, though it is less clear exactly what that is exactly. It is also the case, as you indicate, that power seems to be shifting from public institutions (governments and groups like the WTO, IMF, etc.) to private institutions, particularly multinational corporations and big finance.

    • I would probably take the term “multinational” more seriously than I do if I hadn’t first encountered it in one of the corniest young-adult novels Madeleine L’Engle ever wrote, condemning “multinationals” in the same breath as people with camper trailers instead of tents, and who didn’t moreover have blue eyes, and young girls who want to sit in their room and read poetry instead of doing togetherness with their parents and younger siblings (and don’t realize yet that those dark-eyed, dark-haired boys are up to no good).

  • Jake the antisoshul soshulist

    Interesting. I regularly argue online with a classic paranoid rightwinger.
    Which boils down to anything he doesn’t like is part of the globalist agenda.
    He does not seem to like Trump, but supports him because he is not Hillary who is our new anointed master.
    To him, liberals, the Republican establishment, fascists, communists, globalists, etc are all the same thing.

  • LosGatosCA

    Elites generally have done a poor job of leading in the post-Cold War era. The organizing principles espoused at the end of WWII and then adapted for the Cold War had a long run. They were far from perfect but they did contain and defeat communism while ending colonialism.

    Those principles did facilitate the greatest accumulation of wealth ever considered possible.

    But those principles have broken down as the scale of economic / financial activity has increased exponentially while the mechanisms to harness that activity for the greatest good has almost entirely disappeared.

    The institutions that could be transforming are instead subverted or becoming vestigial – SEC, anti-trust law, intellectual property, etc.

    The unrelenting assault on unions and now the rise of the ‘Gig economy’ are symptoms of societal illness in my view.

    It’s not so much regulatory capture as regulatory pre-emption. Reagan started it, but in the 1990’s the large corporations came to be dominated by essentially an amoral criminally minded class that recognized no limitations on their inclinations to steal/loot. From their customers, shareholders, the government. Really made no difference to them. Then Bush/Cheney brought that mentality to the worlds remaining superpower, from illegitimate start to epic disastrous end.

    Society has still not learned how to deal with the issues. Even after the Great Recession. It’s really an intellectual and moral failure on a scale I didn’t think possible.

    As far as I can tell one of the best explanations may be The Long Exception

    Which would be extremely depressing.

    Or maybe I shouldn’t post listening to Coltrane.

  • jroth95

    Just spit-balling: could it be that the incredible rise of individual wealth has effectively neutered and/or undermined the transnational ruling class? Just as Trump* doesn’t give a shit about the Republican Party beyond its immediate usefulness to him, why should the Kochs or Adelson or Larry Ellison submit themselves to the IMF or whatever to get what they want? Thiel, Murdoch, hell, Gates… there are numerous examples of individuals who are pursuing purely personal agendas that may leverage existing transnational institutions towards their ends, but would sooner see the World Bank fail than see their pet projects fail.

    I don’t mean this to sound like it’s a bunch of Bond villains out there; I just think that, when even the richest individual in the country held only 0.03% of GDP (circa 1980), they had to work through larger institutions in a way that today’s ultra-wealthy, worth a 13X bigger share of the national economy, don’t. And I think that, if you go down to, say, #25, the difference is much more stark. Paul Allen is worth 0.1% of national GDP, more than 3X the very richest American 35 years earlier**.

    Oh hey, semi-helpful Wiki article on the Forbes 400 list: in 1982, those 400 rich people, the plurality inherited wealth and/or oil fortunes, held 2.8% of GDP. In 2000, that percentage was 12.2%, and tech is now the biggest single sector, with less inherited wealth as well.

    *who, to be clear, is not special for his wealth, but has a combo of wealth and celebrity that acts similarly

    **ZOMG, 2 of the people tied at #26 in 1982 (the inaugural Forbes 400) were Henry Hillman and Richard Mellon Scaife, who were practically neighbors in Pittsburgh. Nuts.

    • Lurking Canadian

      In reading Dark Money, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Charles Koch, at least, is a Bond villain, in a world with no Bond. Or perhaps, Lex Luthor in a world without Clark Kent.0

      • CP

        In that Bond villains, especially the Roger Moore era archetypes, are basically petulant children who just happen to have such an obscene amount of wealth and power that they can indulge their personal hobbies and obsessions as much as they want at the expense of the entire world… yeah, I’d say the cartoonish fantasies have come true.

        And it’s definitely true of the Koch brothers. By rights that entire family ought to be in a survivalist bunker in the middle of the mountains with tin foil hats on their heads. But they’re among the richest people in America, so instead they act out their ideological hangups by buying up as much of the political system as they can, and all the rest of us have to pay for it.

  • Tracy Lightcap

    No.

    This has been another in a series of simple answers to simple questions.

    • lizzie

      Ok, then, here’s my question: is that guy in the blue-framed gas mask some kind of robot centaur?

      • Pseudonym

        I, for one, welcome our new robot centaur overlords.

  • LFC

    Perhaps it’s a tad peculiar that a two-year-old book by Moises Naim, former World Bank official, former editor of Foreign Policy magazine, current prolific writer of books with trendy titles like the Five Faces of Globalization (that wasn’t the title exactly; well, whatever the **** it was called), The End of Power, etc., is being reviewed in a leftist outlet like TruthOut?

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