Book Review: Superclass

By Jim Miles

Superclass – The Global Power Elite and the World They are Making.  David Rothkopf.  Viking Canada, Penguin Group, Toronto.  2008

This book is written by a person with the right credentials to do so, as David Rothkopf has worked within the edges of the Superclass.  As he describes his credentials, "I came to this book with not an insignificant amount of personal experience – experience that has given me useful perspectives into the connective tissue of the global super class and introduced me to representatives of the group from every sector and from every region of the world."

Not surprisingly, his position comes out in support of this superclass group, as perceived through the lenses of finance and power, lenses that too frequently call on the guru of globalization, Thomas Friedman, for support of his views.  Globalization, as perceived in Rothkopf’s terms is good, and in a summary statement, that is more of a "well duh" factor, says that for all the power clusters "we have examined, it becomes clear that the most powerful are the most global."  The "clusters" that he looks at are the usual ones implicated in the problems of globalization by its many detractors:  the military, politics, finance, and religion. 

His final argument in simplest terms is that the nation state as we have envisioned it has ended and that we – the people of the globe I assume – need a superclass to lead us into the future.  Built into his conclusion is a well known contradiction – that while Rothkopf needs the superclass to lead us powerless folks, at the same time he recognizes that "Without the emergence of countervailing power centers to represent and ultimately institutionalize the will of the people at large, we will continue to get only partial solutions."  Unfortunately as he observes earlier in the book, this superclass is quite open about its own self-interest and greed and is not really concerned about the rest of us.  All that is well and good and it does make for some informative reading – starting off with the statistics that highlight the enormity of this groups personal wealth and power – but Rothkopf’s presentation never does support the idea that "many in this group have made enormous contributions to the well-being of the planet." 

At the end of it all, the only benefit I can remember from the text without a direct review are the pop culture likes of Bono contributing a certain level of pop commonality to their millions spent on relieving the suffering of Africans, of the Bill Gates foundation donating so many millions to their chosen causes, the Bill Clinton initiatives that apparently "commits" the individual concerned to action in their chosen sphere of interest, or Richard Bronson’s pledge on future profits that may never occur (a contradiction recognized by Rothkopf).  In reality it all adds up in my mind to the tokenism of perception about the benevolence of the rich. The question is, what really has this group done for the world, for the "well-being of the planet," other than to gather wealth and power into their own hands?

Rothkopf of course would argue that they offer us the next level of government, the one that supersedes the nation state, and that because no other organization exists that can do this, then by default, the superclass is it. The main reason as posited by Rothkopf is that they are all leaders, and all are well educated, and all are can do types of people, they are the "elites". In contrast to democracy (see below), the idea of "elites" pervades the book.  Elitism in Rothkopf’s view is good.  A review of Amy Chua’s recent works will help the reader more clearly define the "elite" group in a broader sense [1] and a reading of James Laxer’s The Perils of Empire continues the discussion with the problems of elites. Even as admitted by Rothkopf, the elites wish to remain the elites, they do not really care about the rest of us, and, unbelievable as it may be to the elites, by contrast there are many others in the world who have great if not better ideas and are also leaders, but perhaps without the influence that superclass wealth can purchase.

Another argument presented by Rothkopf is the old standby that many millions have been lifted out of poverty under this group’s leadership, an old standby statistic to support the financial globalization of the world.  Going on the over-used statistic of GDP that is true, but that statistic hides an enormity of inequality that indicates that, no, perhaps not so many are lifted out of poverty.  A similar argument under the guise of "free markets" about increasing wealth is contradicted by other ideas:  first, there are no free markets as judged by the many rules and regulations imposed on countries to make the markets free and the double-standards applied by the rich towards the poor; and secondly, the countries that have succeeded best in the late twentieth, early twenty-first centuries are those that have gone against, or skirted around, the dictates of the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO. [2]

I agree the superclass elites are it, they have been it, and will continue to be it, but other than the feigned beneficence of the group presented above, applying a superficial veneer of assistance to problems they might actually care about but would not allow to disrupt their accumulation of wealth and power, what have they actually done?

The next level of government is already here and it already is the superclass.  For all the interesting material provided in the book, and for its sometimes frank honesty that makes the superclass not so pure of intent, there are some significant omissions in the book that tend to destroy my acceptance of Rothkopf’s belief that this group can lead the world successfully into the future.  One of those omissions is hugely significant, that of the aforementioned WTO – the World Trade Organization. 

Only once does the WTO receive mention in the book, and that is only in a passing anecdotal reference on another topic.  This is the group that admits to "colluding" in private (a "tautology" to be sure), that admits that it is writing the rules for a new global governance, that has written those rules and had them implemented in dozens of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements around the world, without the examination of the supposed democratic institutions of those countries (or as only given lip-service to people’s democratic choice as in Canada and the NAFTA agreement, passed into effect against the majority wishes of the population).  The think tank behind the WTO, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is composed of a smaller group of more powerful countries and their elite representatives, and it as well is not mentioned in the text.  For all that I have read, for all the fuss that has been made over it, for all the mention it receives in the media, to omit talking about the WTO appears to be a major error while discussing globalization and the rules and regulations of how we the people are to be governed by the elites.

Another major omission is that of democracy, a topic hardly raised in the book, a rare word in this text, and one would then have to infer that democracy is not paramount in the minds of the superclass – we know best, we have power, and we will not let it be regulated by the masses of ignorant and poor people that populate our world.  There is nothing democratic about any of the financial structures of the world – perhaps between themselves as they collude for their own bigger piece of the pie, but corporations are in no way democratic, the military is in no way democratic (unless perhaps there is global conscription including the sons and the daughters of the wealthy class), religion is very definitely a male hierarchy of power, and even though politics at the lower level pretends to be democratic, the real power still resides with the wealthy,  and the business class who do – really – collude against the best interests of the global masses.  As indicated by Rothkopf, "The financial hurdles to the highest office in the United States are so high that it is inconceivable that one could surmount them without rich and powerful allies from both the private and public sectors."

There is no possible way that I can conceive of a world democracy that is led by the superclass.  Rothkopf, as many others do, derides the UN as a failure without explaining perhaps why it is a failure.  Is it because the most powerful country simply ignores it except when it is useful for its own purposes to curry international favour?  The idea behind the UN is good, but the set-up is anachronistic with the five so-called super-powers having a veto on any decision of importance.  Regardless of any other arguments pro or con, the UN does not work because the powers that be do not want to be globally democratic, do not want to stop their accumulation of wealth from their empires – it is quite simply a non-democratic institution and will remain that way unless the global "elites" really and truly want the world to become more democratic, a highly unlikely proposition.

While Rothkopf does discuss the military, he does so in a manner that omits its real importance to business and empire – that of sustaining the empire and making the world amenable to the application of "free market" dictates (yes, an oxymoron).  He does discuss the many liaisons between business and government and politics, all seemingly natural to him as that is the world that he operates within, admittedly on the edges.  What he does not examine, as has Chalmers Johnson, Andrew Bacevich and others [3], is the use of the military to support the rich with their many incursions around the world, their hundreds of bases in hundreds of countries that keeps the markets in line with corporate interests, and their significant financial influence in many electoral areas throughout the U.S.  With that kind of democracy, we do not need dictators.  I’ll quickly return to Thomas Friedman, the pro war and pro free market guru who first expressed it well with his terminology of the "hidden fist" of the military backing up all the corporate wealth that is good for America.

These omissions – the WTO, democracy, and the use of the modern military – tend to void any constructive elements that Rothkopf might try to introduce.  There is no argument that the superclass is powerful and the elites and are leading the world in the direction they want to go, and taking the likes of Rothkopf with them as he enjoys the ride from a somewhat lesser but still higher viewpoint than the vast majority of us.  But now I’ll return briefly to my question – what have they done for us?

Let’s see:  global warming, environmental degradation, militarism and war, media control and advertising-propaganda for consumption, over consumption, increasing disparities between the elites and the rest of us, soaring energy costs, soaring food costs, the privatization of the commons for more wealth, increasing financial stress as the trickle down effect is revealed as being a rather powerful vacuum to the elites and the simply wealthy, religious intolerance.  Little of this affects the elites as they have the power and wealth to ride over it all, able to secure their own comfort zone while the world they have created starts to implode.  Highly pessimistic, yes, yet it needs to be presented that all this too has been brought to you by the elites to counteract the arguments that they have been wonderful benefactors for the world’s population.

A final word on globalization.  Should Rothkopf ever read this review, I could probably accurately infer that I would be dismissed as an anti-globalization proponent.  He seems to see the two groups as white and black, good and bad, with few nuances in between.  His globalized world is a financial/political/military one.  I am very much a believer in globalization, but in the sense of fair wages and fair trade – there is no “free” trade, that is just excellent spin and the part of free that needs to be most free but is not is labour.  Globalization as I see it also includes the open exchange of technology and ideas in all areas, the equalization of social services (universal health care, universal education, child care, women’s rights, labour rights, environmental protections, cultural protections) and the freedom to travel in a world that could be essentially unarmed yet still policed.  Globalization is thus for all people and not just the elites, the superclass and their wealth. 

All that said, "Superclass" is a worthwhile read in order to better understand the mind set and intentions of the superclass elites.  But remember the omissions, they are significant. If Rothkopf does not consider them significant, then he needs to tell us why they are not significant, especially considering all the political drizzle about freedom and democracy that seeps from the minds of the same elites. 

-Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.


[1] see Amy Chua, World on Fire. Anchor Books, Random House, New York, 2004; and Day of Empire, Doubleday, New York, 2007.
[2] as I have indicated in previous reviews there are many authors to read concerning the supposed successes and real failures of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO:  see Stiglitz’ Globalization and Its Discontents, Greg Grandin’s Empire’s Workshop, Ha Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans, and Walden Bello’s Dilemmas of Domination, and Gibbon et al, A Blighted Harvest The World Bank and African Agriculture in the 1980s for starters.
[3] see Andrew Bacevich American Empire and The New American Militarism; Chalmers Johnson’s trilogy of Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis;  James Carroll’s Crusade and House of War; with many other volumes available relating it all to the current occupations of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine.

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