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.