|Paper presented at the Left Forum, New York
City, March 8-11 2007
Panel: Europe - China - USA: Hegemonic Actors and Imperial Projects (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation) - Jörg Huffschmid, University of Bremen (Chair) - Hans-Jürgen Krysmanski, University of Münster - Peter Gowan, London Metropolitan University - Satya Gabriel, Mt. Holyoke College
The global movement commonly called Neoliberalism' basically is a drive for the unfettered accumulation of private money power, a movement of private accumulation by dispossession of the common good. This movement originally draped itself with some of the ideas of 18th and 19th century liberalism, adapted to the cybernetic and digital age. But these ideological smoke screens by now have become irrelevant to the actors of this movement and merely serve, as all ideology, to divert from the fundamental, almost archaic process itself. The banner of Neoliberalism has become the front for a winner-takes-all-system, a sauve-qui-peut society of every man for himself.
Just like the concept of neoliberalism, the concept of hegemony has undergone deep changes. It was useful as long as power was being developed and acumulated within the collective and state structures of a functioning bourgeois society. And of course, these institutional frameworks still hold some sway over the workings of what we call globalization. And of course, hegemony can still be an issue there. But my argument will be that the real power structures of today, localized in such diverse geopolitical spaces as Europe, (Russia), China and North America - have evolved from rationalized and bureaucratized structures into networks and even micro-networks of reckless, post-hegemonic' actors, of greedy individuals, of a money elite claiming sovereignty for itself.
And therefore it is my proposal to look at the geopolitical spaces of Europe, Russia, China and North America - really at the Northern Belt' - by examining the real actors accumulating private (money) power. In order to do so, we need what might be called a taxonomy of power elites in the process of globalization. I do not have to remind you of the lively debates about an emerging global ruling class, a transnational capitalist class on one hand and service classes on the other: the global managers, global bureaucrats and global politicians. In all these discussions, though, one group has remained largely invisible, the ultra-high-net-worth-individuals, the superrich.
It would be silly to talk about American exceptionalism', for example, without recognizing that this type of thinking has, and always had, its only real foundation in the self-image of the class of the rich. And in observing this group of the superrich and their personal networks on a global scale, in Europe, Russia, China and North America, one will again and again discover various forms of exceptionalism'. In addition, the specific dynamics within these groups will play out between old' and new' money, between legal' and corrupt' practices, between subjugating service classes and growing, to a certain extent, dependent on their own service classes.
As the structures of sovereignty of bourgeois society disappear (Hardt/Negri), a new type of sovereignty increasingly begins to rest within these private networks and micro-networks. More than forty years ago Ferdinand Lundberg, a keen observer of the superrich, especially around New York, gave an excellent description of the very large generic fortunes, their hold over the most important banks, their controlling ownership stakes in industry, their control of the super foundations, of major universities, the political projection of their wealth into the party system, their interest in foreign and military policy on account of their property holdings abroad and finally their vast popular cultural influence.
So, when talking about the geopolitical relationships between Europe, Russia, China and North America, I therefore want to concentrate on the international networks and micro-networks of the superrich of these regions, starting with the ranking lists available for each region. In spite of what has been said about the clash of civilizations', about the rivalry between Europe' and the USA', about the rivalry, finally, between the USA' and China', things begin to look different - in fact, a totally different cognitive map emerges - if you look at those micro-networks already existing between, for example, the German superrich and some Chinese billionaires, or between Russian and European billionaires, or, most importantly between American billionaires and their counterparts all over the world (including the Bush family and their Arab friends).
The money elite today embodies an expanded mass of money capital that has been set free from its commodity form and has been transformed into forms of pure power. (Arrighi) A second group, the corporate and financial elites, must be regarded as the top notch service class of the first. They function as the specialists for capital valorization and other accumulation strategies. These CEOs - certainly not always loyal to their true masters - cooperate or compete amongst themselves, united by one common goal, the short term increase of profits. Together with the superrich they form the core of what might be called a 'money power apparatus' (in reference to Michel Foucault's concept of 'power apparatus'). The third group, the political elites - while paying lip service to social justice - have the sole function of distributing wealth from the 'bottom' to the 'top'. Therefore the space of the political elites teems with lobbyism and corruption. Finally we have the 'knowledge elites', that vast army of technocrats and experts valued for their analytical, symbolic and affective abilities. Here, too, 'ranking lists' determine their usefulness with regard to the economic, social and cultural interests of the money elite.
With regard to the subject of our panel - hegemonic actors and imperial projects - research strategies directed at the worldwide interconnections between these regional power circles' become important. There is, of course, the intriguing history of trans-atlantic relations from the days of Benjamin Franklin and Woodrow Wilson to the Roundtables' of Carroll Quigley, the Marshall Plan, the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, the World Economic Forum etc. As far as trans-atlantic relations are concerned, the European actors, after the disturbances of World War Two and the Cold War, have re-grouped and by now almost mirror the circles of the American elites. The channels between the American and European superrich, between the managerial and political classes and especially between the experts and celebrities are open and busy, through dynastic ties and (cultural) exchange, reeducation and education, and, above all, through myriad financial transactions. All along, the American side has evolved in a way that is unabashedly 'plutocratic'. And the American superrich are growing ever more cosmopolitic, moving their megayachts back and forth between the Mediterranean and the Caribbian and probably constituting the most sophisticated body of billionaires that ever existed.
In contrast, the distribution of power within the respective 'power circles' of China and Russia seems to be much more ambiguous. On account of the recent political past in China and Russia the primacy of the political class (or caste) still lingers on. The Putin-Government has drawn its power from the security and secret service establisment and from the traditions of 'state management'. The Chinese have, in very interesting ways, adapted the power networks of the communist party to the globalization and capitalization of their economy. The newly created classes of the superrich in Russia and China appear to be far less sophisticated in terms of power brokering than their European and American counterparts. But they are learning fast. The Putin system cannot be explained without the role of certain oligarchs that have come to terms with the regime.
And in China things are changing, too. Rupert Hoogewerf, a Shanghai-based British accountant, until 2003 associated with Forbes magazine, today puts out the acclaimed annual China's 400 Richest' list. He describes how Chinese tycoons have been increasingly more responsive in their attitude toward the exposure of their wealth. His latest list, published in 2006, demonstrates how rapid economic growth and strong demand among overseas investors for Chinese shares are sending the wealth of China's most successful entrepreneurs sharply higher. The combined net worth of the 400 soared 51% to $38 billion from $26 billion a year ago. The minimum wealth needed to make the list this year was $100 million, compared with $62 million in 2005 (cf. Hurun Report).
It would be quite worthwhile to inquire how far and in what sense at least some of these people are turning into hegemonic and post-hegemonic actors. And it is no surprise that one of the richest (and most secretive) European families, the Quandt family, has taken the initiative in coaching Chinese billionaires. The Quandt family (Susanne Klatten, Johanna Quandt, Stefan Quandt) owns the automaker BMW and has invested in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, with a combined fortune of about 20 billion euros. Its BMW/Herbert Quandt Foundation covers the whole gambit of networking - transatlantic cooperation, support of the pan-European unification process etc. But as of recent more emphasis has been laid upon strengthening the relations between Europe and the emerging economic regions of Asia and Russia. The most significant activity of the foundation has been the Europe Asia Forum, which since 1998 - and now in conjunction with the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs - has organized six conferences, serving, among other things, as a kind of Bohemian Grove' for Asia's superrich.
I think it is this field of networking by the sophisticated European and American superrich that has to be put much more into focus. Many of the other organizations and institutions which our panel will address - like the WTO, transnational business councils and regional bodies of regulation (and deregulation) - must be seen as instruments of the money elite, not as the places where the superrich themselves may congregate. So we need to compile more information about their more informal micro-networks, clubs etc.
But then again, looking at the informal micro-networks and clubs of the superrich one should realize that these are also the places where many of the hegemonial dreams and imperial projects, concocted by ambitious members of the service classes, are being cut down to size. As history has shown again and again, the superrich as a group, because of their fixation on making more and more money and on making the top of ranking lists, are really not that interested in grand historical visions. They just want to be richer than the next guy. But then, this is exactly what makes them so dangerous.
Let me close with one final remark. I have written a report for a member of the Confederal Group of the European United Left / Nordic Green Left, a political Group of the European Parliament. The report was entitled Who owns the European Union?' Obviously, there is no easy answer to this.
For one thing, the question of who owns - or rather: will own - the EU cannot be reduced to the European money elite and their functional service elites. Just as practically no palace in Venice is still owned by a Venetian, Europe's choice industrial and real estate properties, the media industry and even its cultural heritage (cf. Abu Dhabi's acquisition of the Louvre brand) will soon find owners all over the world. "Right now", writes the German manager magazin, "the big money from takeovers and mergers is being made in Great Britain and America. But soon other countries will follow in their footsteps. China, for example, has picked one country for future takeovers: the Federal Republic of Germany."
On the other hand, though, the superrich of Europe and their circles of power' constitute a very special mix, tinged by a well preserved aristocratic past no other region in the world has to offer, teeming with organizations, orders, secret societies, rites and traditions (right up to the Vatican) that have been bolstered by the advance of cybertechnology. So within an emerging, global winner-takes-all-society' one could characterize the specific European ownership structure as one of capitalism-based high-tech-refeudalization.
On this premise, the European money elite might try to orchestrate their struggle for survival. Endowed with the best safeguards money can buy, they might consider themselves well prepared for a world of dramatic change. But actually, they should know that this is an illusion - just simply by remembering that 1793, that the French revolution is part of their heritage, too.