Elites and power – Stretching the imagination?
The following text develops an argument that leads up to the vision of its last paragraph – which, to some, might seem enigmatic or disappointing in its implications. It is all about the concept of planning – of participatory or democratic or, as I would prefer to call it, scientific (interdisciplinary) planning. It is about the multitude of experts, scientists and professionals that are involved in the incredibly complicated planning processes of today.
How to move from ‘here’ (private ownership of the means of production, corporate divisions of labor, plutocracy, the specter of markets, autocratic planning) to ‘there’ (a socialism based on science, knowledge, reason) is the central question. And you can’t move without movers.
Writing about a strategy for the future cannot compel a European of my generation to dismiss the lessons of 20th century’s Left Project, which started out under the banner of ‘scientific socialism’ – and dismally failed. But do we refrain from returning to classical art and thought just because the project of classical antiquity ‘failed’? To Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and to thousand other thinkers the concept of scientific socialism was essential. And many think, that advances in the soft and hard sciences are such that this concept finally has a chance.
If this is the case, any discussion of the visions of classlessness is meaningless if it does not consider how today’s structures of power and the actors therein are changing. In order to get from ‘here’ to ‘there’, the issue of classes and class relations has to be taken up. And again, we cannot ignore the lessons of the 20th century. Power structures have evolved in most interesting ways and they have challenged our classic notions of class analysis. But just as we cannot disregard Charles Darwin’s momentous discoveries because evolutionary biology has advanced since then, we cannot do away with the classicality of the Communist Manifesto just because things have become infinitely more complex.
So we shouldn’t be shy to search for alternative concepts to designate our adversaries and in particular to identify actors who (without ever having read a line of Zmag) might be our potential allies in building a better society. Many of the members of (what I will call) the knowledge elite are much more expert in assessing the cracks in the concrete of capitalism than we are. Still, they have joined forces with political directorates, corporate and financial elites etc. because that is all they have been taught to do. But even within the latter groups we discover cracks, and ‘discoverers of cracks’, and ‘visionaries’. This highly differentiated group of ‘functional elites’ will be the starting point of my contribution.
As far as the actual use of elite power is concerned, the United States have produced some weighty export models or franchises: First the configuration of the Power Elite as C. Wright Mills saw it. This configuration, among other things, was characterized by the fact that the superrich dynasties of the twenties had become surrounded, controlled and eventually squeezed by bureaucratic elites, top experts, machiavellian scientists, union leaders, top managers, political generals and ‚political directorates’. Secondly the Military-Industrial-Complex (MIC). Even Dwight D. Eisenhower had identified it. It was born out of the war economy and eventually was nourished by that completely lopsided contest between the USSR und the US commonly called the Cold War. Surprisingly, Pentagon Capitalism began to flourish even more after the end of the Cold War. Today, stabilized and accelerated by the new geopolitics of the information age, the Pentagon complex appears to be even more powerful than the third export model to be discussed here: the networks of Wall Street Capitalism or, as I call it, the Monetary Power Complex (MPC).
Obviously capitalism has always been defined by the flow and power of money, by credit chains and financial deals. But since the seventies capitalism has experienced a historically unheard of increase in the uncontrolled exercise of monetary power. This has amplified the role of organized and networked ultra-wealth as never before. These developments have profoundly changed how power in general and monetary power in particular are exercised. The money elite today implements the ancient rule that money is what money does by ends and means that in many respects are still an enigma to social science. There not only is, according to Richard Sennett, a whiff of soft fascism, there also is a puff of financial fascism permeating the system. And the centre of gravity of the knowledge and information society has become contaminated by the MPC.
In any case one can discern a few ‘rings’ of functional elites encircling that power house’s rather dark inner core of unimaginable wealth: 1) Corporate and financial elites serving their ultra-rich clientele by exploring and creating novel opportunities for capital accumulation – without forgetting about their own interests. 2) Political elites and political directorates experimenting with new strategies for the bottom to top distribution of wealth; strategies as far as possible removed from public scrutiny so as not to endanger the social consensus. 3) A vast army of lesser technocrats and experts (versed in analytical, symbolic and affective forms of knowledge) without whom all of this would not function. Of course, fruitful contradictions and alternative opportunities arise within all of these rings of the MPC.
If one looks at social power, at forms of power that have moved societies throughout history, one always will encounter alternative forms of power and utopian energy, too. This always has caused the elites in power to coalesce into a more or less homogeneous power elite, which today is entrenched between the poles of high tech military force on one hand and highly informatized pecuniary omnipotence, so to speak, on the other. And this power complex is, of course, striving to monopolize its potential. It will try to coopt functional elites through evaluation and selection regimes and it will find means to exclude others.
Obviously, the functional elites carry a heavy burden under these circumstances. Privately, in order to secure their very existence, they are tied to the power elite, to the MIC and the MPC. Publicly they cannot deny the fact that – because of their social, cultural, technical, scientific skills – they are part of the general living forces of labor. And this is why the networks of power are not static but retain a brittleness, fluidity and historicity that keeps them open for change.
Not only investment bankers, for example, see their reputations going down the drain, the political elites – if they are acting within or near the MPC – have problems with their public image, too. President Barack Obama had been regarded a bearer of hope for the political class all over the world. But many of these hopes resting on a new type of politician have been frustrated. „Instead of cracking down on serial looters and complicit regulators, he wants to guarantee the financial sector’s obligations, which are several times larger than America’s economy. Simply put: The government is breaking the rules of capitalism to reward the most reckless capitalists.“
And the knowledge elites in particular, the multifaceted groups of experts, technocrats, media people, wellness specialists etc. will be called upon by the MPC to attempt the salvation of the system. “Remember,“ Wall Street Journal Autor Paul B. Farrell writes, „Washington’s run by 40,000 lobbyists not 537 elected politicians. That way, behind the scenes Wall Street keeps control with its business-as-usual tactics, schemes, scams, hustles and wheeling and dealing“ – by gridlocking, preventing a Glass-Steagall revival, keeping rating agencies ‘official’, limiting new derivative regulations, keeping ‘shadow banking’ alive, offloading toxic debt into a government-owned ‘bad bank’, preventing executive pay limits etc. „The bottom line, the No. 1 priority is very simple: America needs a new bull market, and that means brainwashing the public with ‚good news’ to renew confidence and trust.“
Of course, our technical, managerial and scientific elites could opt for alternatives like a democratically planned economy. They could contribute to advances in technology and science not geared to the commodity fetish. But right now these actors are pushed in a different direction, the MIC-direction. A recent study by a British Ministry of Defence team envisions that in 30 years – with more than 60% of the world population living in urban sprawls – social and ‚inter-communal’ unrest will reach new heights. Referring to a growing gap between the middle classes and the super-rich, the report states: "The middle classes could become a revolutionary class, taking the role envisaged for the proletariat by Marx." College brains are being brainwashed to cope with such eventualities, or they are drawn into projects behind Obama’s new civilian cyber security effort that complements Pentagon plans to create a military command for cyberspace, stepping up preparations by the armed forces to conduct both offensive and defensive computer warfare – and so on.
History teaches us that all high cultures, especially those of Feudalism, have been riddled with non-public power networks, secret societies, dynastic webs etc. These networks survive in bourgeois or civil society. They constitute the dark, anonymous side of power in modern societies and democracies. They have been tied into a planning culture of think tanks made possible by the rise of the knowledge society. And by becoming more sophisticated such networks are providing the spaces for a new, emerging sovereign ruling class of the ‚most private of private men’, of the superrich. The study of these new forms of sovereignty can be self absorbing. At the same time it is a most tempting subject, especially in the light of Carl Schmitt’s dictum that ‘elite are those whose sociology nobody dares to write about’. This is exactly the black hole we need to know more about in order to get from ‚here’ to ‚there’.
„Analysis of corporate-policy interlocks reveals that a few dozen cosmopolitans – primarily men based in Europe and North America and actively engaged in corporate management – knit the network together via participation in transnational interlocking and/or multiple policy groups. The policy groups pull the directorates of the world’s major corporations together, and collaterally integrate the lifeworld of a global corporate elite“. In a way, this emerging consensus on the subject among social scientists leads us back to the visions of the The Communist Manifesto. Marx and Engels saw capitalism as a transnational, global endeavor – with the capitalist class able to act cosmopolitical whenever profit beckoned. The working classes, by contrast, were physically trapped on a local and regional level, still having a long way to go on the road to globality.
It is only now, in the world of networked computers, that the productive forces have reached a stage permitting that ascent into globality. Bloggers dream of an online global collectivist society: „We underestimate the power of our tools to reshape our minds. Did we really believe we could collaboratively build and inhabit virtual worlds all day, every day, and not have it affect our perspective? The force of online socialism is growing. Its dynamic is spreading beyond electrons – perhaps into elections.“ And the project Reimagining Society ties right into this.
At the same time the brittleness of the MPC, of the MIC and of capitalism in general is increasing. James Saft of the NYT asks: Was whole economy a Ponzi scheme? And historian Paul Kennedy argues: “It is one thing for leaders of the world’s leading nations and fiscal institutions to meet and try to avert the international slump from getting worse. But it is another thing to suppose that with a bit of luck, things can be returned back to ‚normal’ – that is, the world before the banking and credit and commercial crisis broke. Underneath, the economic tectonic plates – Marx’s oft-derided ‚substructures’ – are still moving, away from the West, and toward the successful parts of the Rest.“
There are attempts to rescue the MPC by returning „to the day when banks were focused institutions — when savings banks, insurance companies, brokerages and investment banks lived separate lives.“ But what we see is pointing instead towards concentration and monopolization. The American MIC, too, is involved in a historical turn-about that must be judged in all its ambivalence. Military force is presently, at least in part, being transformed into an ultra-high-tech-machine capable of controlling and, if necessary, taking out the central power structures of governmental and non-governmental adversaries worldwide by surgical strikes. These highly complex and effective military capacities, being expanded under Obama, have not gone unnoticed – from Moscow to Beijing, from Caracas to Tehran. In the last analysis, these capacities constitute a brutal threat potential that is aimed at power elites and functional elites not doing the bidding of the empire, of a brittle empire.
So where are the voices of enlightened reason? The Council on Foreign Relations can be relied upon to subscribe to a very pragmatic version as exemplified by its former president Leslie Gelb: „Power is what it always was - essentially the capacity to get people to do what they don’t want to do, by pressure and coercion, using one’s resources and position. The world is not flat. The shape of global power is decidedly pyramidal – with the United States alone at the top, a second tier of major countries (China, Japan, India, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Brazil), and several tiers descending below. Among all nations, only the United States is a true global power with global reach.” Gelb dismisses the more subtle uses of digital technology and he also has no sympathy for the concept of ‚soft power’ (Joseph Nye). Writes Gelb: “Persuasion, good values and leadership won’t – by themselves – cause foreign leaders to do your bidding. To me, soft power is foreplay, not the real thing.”
On the other hand, though, Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, does not tire to enlighten us on the rationale behind the American establishment’s planning: “You know, it’s kind of a simple plan in some ways. Point one is you have an open society, where you have freedom of religion, you have economic freedom, you have political freedom, intellectual freedom. Then, that’s point two, that society goes out and engages with the world through trade and other things. And this encounter, because you are so open, and have so many ideas, makes you rich, which gives you the ability for step three, which is a global balance of power system, where you prevent any one country from being able to challenge you while you build a system to protect international trade. Point four, you allow other countries into the system. We’re trying to do that, to some degree, with China. And finally, point five, you promote the values that make the system work around the world. And that basic geopolitical strategy has been the guiding force behind both British and American world power.“ So there is some room between Gelb and Mead – or is it a crack?
But if the MIC and the MPC are to implement even that very simple version of enlightenment, it will be costly beyond anything the Anglo-Saxons ever had to put on the table for their historical achievements. By the end of 2008 the Wall Street Bailout already had cost more than $ 4,6 Trillion – 4 600 Billion. Look, for comparison, at other American imperial projects (prices adjusted for inflation): Marshall Plan $ 115 Billion, Louisiana Purchase $ 217 Billion, Moonshot $ 237 Billion, Savings&Loan Crisis $ 256 Billion, Korean War $ 454 Billion, The New Deal $ 500 Billion, Iraq War $ 597 Billion, Vietnam $ 698 Billion, NASA (all time budget) $ 851 Billion. To repeat: all these projects together cost $ 3,925 Trillion, Wall Street alone already $ 4,6 Trillion. Unaffordable in the long run.
In the final analysis one very real chance for change might be to get the shaken functional elites (now halfheartedly serving the MIC and the MPC or having already lost their jobs) to engage in a power structure research of their own. They know their way around. They can harness the computer power available. They might discover, along the way, that enlightenment is no product of the Anglo-Saxons’ best and brightest, of Wall Street or of Europe, for that matter, but that reason has evolved within all of the cultures of globalization. So – to re-phrase the central tenet of the Communist Manifesto – they might begin to enjoy the feeling of scientifically planning the replacement of the old societies (with their classes and class antagonisms) by a global network of peaceful asssociations ‚in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.