The global elite is the only elite now

When I read Beyond the Global Culture War ten years ago it was interesting, but I was unconvinced. The author, Adam K Webb, has a peculiar political typology where the liberal democratic “end of history” is seen in a very negative light, part of an atomistic and dehumanizing trend across human history which has only come to prominence of late (in the past it was exemplified by atheistic and hedonistic cults, such as the Carvaka). A strange thing to someone reading in the mid-2000s is that Webb has good things to say about the Islamic Republic of Iran, and its vision for society.

It is important to remember that the clerical elite which dominates Iran are not know-nothings. Much of Shia Islam explicitly integrates and accepts the validity of ancient Greek philosophy. In contrast, mainstream Sunnis have been skeptical of philosophy’s value since the time of Al-Ghazali. Shia Islam, therefore, preserves intellectual threads which date back to the 8th and 9th centuries of the Abbassid Caliphate, which have become attenuated within Sunni Islam. Though Sunni Islam is not anti-intellectual per se, it is not surprising that the most austere and anti-humanistic sects, such as Salafism, come out of that tradition (in contrast, extreme Shiism gave rise to the Bahá’í religion).

Khomeini studied and admired both Plato and Aristotle. Many people have seen similarities between the novel republican-theocratic hybrid state of the Islamic Republic and Plato’s Republic, with Shia clerics taking the place of philosopher-kings. Webb suggested that the Islamic Republic was led by a ruling class of clerics who had a vision of the good for their society, and that was a good thing. This, in contrast to the regnant neoliberal consumer capitalism promoted by the likes of Thomas Friedman in a vulgar fashion, and Francis Fukuyama in a more implicit and subtle manner.

In Beyond the Global Culture War Webb argues for the likelihood of a resurgent movement of nationalisms based around public virtue and a vision of the “good society” which is more than just the sum of capitalist transactions between consenting adults. He imagined that despite their differences, Muslim, Buddhists, Christians, Confucians, and Hindus, could all come together as one against secular neoliberalism.

After 40 years at the helm as I am writing this the “virtuous” ruling class of Iran is under serious stress, in large part because of individual corruption at the elite levels, as well their commitment of the body politic to international adventurism. And even the best-laid plans and aims succumb to a diminishment of enthusiasm and zeal.

And yet nevertheless some of the theses of Beyond the Global Culture War are more relevant now than they were when the book was written. First, the neoliberal order of infinite plentitude and a universal middle class collapsed in the financial crisis of 2008. Though the global order continues on neoliberal precepts, it is more a matter of not knowing what the alternative could be, rather than genuine enthusiasm. Second, nationalism and localist movements which cut against the grain of global democratic liberalism have become vigorous. China shows no signs of embracing democratic liberalism, India is home to a Hindu nationalist movement that has the reins of power, and right-wing political movements are on the march in Europe. Third, a genuine international global elite has taken on greater solidity since the financial crisis, because they understand that their interests are more important in concert than the nation-states which they are notionally citizens of.

Consider Rupert Murdoch. Born an Australian, but now an American citizen. He has media properties of note across many nations. He has daughters who are half ethnically Chinese, granddaughters who are part Ghanaian, and other grandchildren who are being raised British (and are descendants of Sigmund Freud!).

Murdoch may be an extreme case, but his life and ties are not atypical for the global oligarchic class. Below them is the global professional caste which moves between nations as needed, and views themselves citizens of the world. They are foot-soldiers in keeping the machinery of internationalism chugging along. The banker in New York arguably has more in common in terms of public and private interests with the banker in London or Shanghai than they do with the citizens who reside in the hinterlands of the nation-states in which they live.

And yet nation-states exist, and nationalism is robust through popular democratic means. Just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt was viewed as a traitor to the patrician class from which he came, so some demagogues will come out of the oligarchic class to elevate the importance of the nation above their own class interests. But perhaps India gives a better sense of nationalism and its tension with its global elite: Hindu nationalism is rooted in upper caste middle-class Indians, but their origins are often sub-elite or petite bourgeois. They are often less fluent in international English, as opposed to the nascent national language, Hindi. India’s negotiation between being part of the international order of liberal democracies, and something deeply native and distinctive, may be illustrative of the future.

I am not one who believes that the nation-states were “invented” by the French in the last decade of the 18th century. But, the nation-state was given more salience and centrality in the 19th century, as multi-ethnic monarchies were seen as archaic and outmoded, and liberal nationalism captured the spirit of the day. The trend toward nationalism ironically became international. Though some nation-states were artificial and have failed their original promise, many have come to become part of the international order.

The nation-state is now part of our diplomatic heritage, and there is no movement for “world government” in any concrete sense. Though there are international governmental institutions, their solidity is similar to that of taxonomic ranks above that of species. They have some reality and utility, but they’re not nearly as relevant or distinct as species.

Over the next few years, we will start to see how the nation-state, and the resurgent nationalisms, deal with the reality of a supra-nation without a state, the cosmopolitan global overclass. At the pinnacle of the global overclass are the oligarchs. This group has always been of internationalist bent due to their reliance or positions in finance and trade. But in the past few centuries, national patriotism was a feature present even among oligarchs. To some extent, the national and personal interest were comingled. The House of Morgan did not intervene to stabilize the American economy purely out of patriotism. But the fiscal health of the United States was seen as necessarily tied to the health of the House of Morgan. And it is also true that during the great age of globalization before 1914 this class was still characterized by a powerful robust nationalist ethos which would be unthinkable today.

Tom Friedman was wrong. The world is not flat. The world is multi-textured. In the United States Obama’s presidency did not herald a post-racial era, but a more racial era! Similarly, despite the financial collapse, there is a shadow across the world of a global class which operates in a flat neoliberal landscape where the acid of capitalism has eaten away at local national affinities and affiliations in anything beyond a legal and convenient sense. The dream of lives on for some, and those “some” count a lot more individual than the multitudes who have soured on the universal global order.


26 thoughts on “The global elite is the only elite now

  1. Great comment, chapeau!
    If you dig deep and deeper, at the core of the problem with the financial olicarchy, is the current banking and money system. Banks can create money and there is a huge and constantly growing gap between the available real values and the amount of money running through the veins of the financial system. The oligarchs won’t fix it, at least not without pressure from the people, because their disproportionate power and profits are based on this imbalance.
    Our current money system was born out of an economic structure which no longer exists. The only reason for its persistence is that the ruling class in the West profits from it so much, to the detriment of its people, states and the world.

    And I totally agree with your view on Shia Islam as well. Shia Islam, even its more radical versions, have much more potential for a fusion of Islamic and positive modern values. Something you simply don’t see in radical Sunni Islam.

  2. there is a huge and constantly growing gap between the available real values and the amount of money running through the veins of the financial system.

    If that were true, there would be major inflation. There isn’t. The statement isn’t true.

  3. Anyone who truly believes in the idea of an “enlightened elite” is a fool. Plato’s Republic is yet an Utopian dream that more often than not turns into a nightmare. Elites work for the benefit for the elites themselves, and do so in practically every system.

    The truth is that deep down human beings are always and will always be tribal, what varies is only the nature of the tribe. Elites are simply tribes in charge, which clash against each other in a bid for power.

    The people follow those that they can believe can benefit them and their tribe and defend them against tribes.

    The modern technological-globalist-capitalist system is one which ties together tribes under the common threat of annihilation and reciprocal business advantages, when those advantages fade out so will the system.

    All ancient empires aspired to do the same (unite the tribes to stop unnecessary and unprofitable wars through a common threat and mutual advantages) and for a while many of them (from the Roman Empire to the Mongol Empire to the British Empite) managed to do so. The US are the modern Empire, and global capitalism/the “American Dream”/neo-conservatism/neo-liberalism was its way to manage a global hegemony (along with “humanitarian” wars).

    Everything ends, and so will the modern American Empire/Pax Americana. It’d be wrong to think that it’ll be replaced by nationalism, though, or at least by 19th century nationalism. The world is too financially and technologically connected to go back to that.

    What’s more likely is that the role of Global Empire will be gradually taken up by a successor, probably China, which might struggle with keeping everything together from a commercial/financial perspective although it might be less concerned with selling an ideal model of government to justify its military and diplomatic actions, and abandon the pretext of “expanding democracy” or “preserving the rule of law” in favor of a direct defense of a pragmatic peace which is good for business.

    I don’t think this is going to happen quickly or suddenly, though. The US are still a major world power and they will be a big player for at least another generation. The biggest losers in the short term will be the already weakened international organizations, from the UN to the EU, whose power will gradually peter out in favor for more limited alliances between like-minded powers (likely a smaller NATO, a “Western European Union” which kicks out or diminishes the power of Eastern European countries and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization).

  4. “Khomeini studied and admired both Plato and Aristotle.”

    The useful idiots said the same thing about Stalin. The Iranian regime was not born pure and become corrupt. It was corrupt, thuggish, anti-American, anti-Jewish, and violently repressive from the get-go. It has no legitimacy among the Iranian people. It stays in power by violent repression. It will deal with the latest round of protests just as violently as it did with the last. It is never wise to bet against tyrants until the moment comes when they cannot pay the soldiers. Sadly for Iran, Obama delayed that day.

  5. Razib, I’m stressing again the necessity of reading “Web of Debt, by Ellen Brown”.
    You will love it.

  6. >the cosmopolitan global overclass.

    As long as people continue to leverage their theoretical future earnings via debt by mortgages/autos/credit cards/university/healthcare / transact in trade via various reserve notes, the overclass will persist in some form.

    I don’t think even crypto currencies represent a major threat to parts of the over-class that are willing to adapt with the times, the same way private currencies have always been in use in some form.

    Though I don’t think that most nation states will be increasingly threatened by them (I don’t have very high hopes on large scale automatic tax enforcement of them, esp if politically connected companies like equifax will get the contracts for such blockchain analytics, esp for chains that are opaque by design [i.e monero], and that’s just “developed” countries). Which makes me also think that companies that rely on large subsidies/contracts from governments will find it increasingly harder to lock in future profits.

    RE: Roger Sweeny

    >If that were true, there would be major inflation. There isn’t. The statement isn’t true.

    I’d mostly agree with this assessment for global commodity markets, and disagree in the case of places like Venezuela/Zimbabwe/ or other localized instances where things break down (like how grain became very expensive for some places in north africa a couple years ago), but the case could be made that the governments there didn’t manage (the risk of things going bad) very well.

    I’d also agree for things like housing and equity markets; there seems to be slight inflation when access to debt is cheap, and deflation when it gets more expensive.

    Side note, there were a couple major shifts in warfare since 1914, and I’m very interested in how cosmopolitan global overclass will influence this in this evolving landscape.

  7. It seems to me that psychological reasons are more important than just economics in the resurgence of tribalism among the multitudes of the world. The global elites have reconciled with a value system based on material progress and self-fulfillment and without a transcendental purpose. It is the multitudes who are recoiling from what they perceive to be the black emptiness of space. The multitudes in India, Pakistan and most other middle east countries, the sub-elites and peti-bourgeoisie, have made tremendous absolute material gain in the last two-three decades of neo-liberalism, their relative gains with respect to global elites may be different. However, I do not believe it is the material disparity that is animating the sub-elites in the third world, its the annihilation of of a spiritual home.

  8. @Roger Sweeny:
    Inflation is not determined by the absolute amount of money in the flow, but by its use in the real world economy. If the money is just flowing from one investor to the other, from one bank to the other, almost always inside of the financial sphere in the narrower sense, billions and trillions can be created and transfered without interfering with the real world material economy too much. Only if such a bubble blows up or such institutions decide to influence the real world, it can have a massive effect. Otherwise it just creates money and profits out of thin air.

    Fact is, there are a lot of people, with the oligarchs on top, which have so much money that they don’t want, even can’t spend it on real goods.
    They use it to create more and more money and power from it, not in the real economy. Just look at where most of the money is parked. In financial products and derivatives which only have a very indirect connection to the material world. One of the best examples for this money games currently available is bitcoin. Only a very small proportion of this “currency” being used for real transactions, even if including criminal activities. And for that nonsense huge amounts of energy and processing power being wasted to create even more play money.
    In fact, a large portion of the current financial system works pretty much the same way. Even real estate can become a playing ground for this surplus money with all the detrimental consequences. But imagine more of the financial upper class and banks would decide to invest in real estate and create even more useless products for worthless houses?
    Wait a minute, that happened 2008, but only on a small scale…

  9. Excellent throwdown, Razib! Your hot-in-the moment syntheses are deep-historical perspective gems, and while I may not necessarily agree with your next (as yet unwritten) tweet, I’m sure I can speak for all regular readers of your blog when I affirm that your efforts are very valued.

    Prompted by reading this post I naively thought to look for a Peter Turchin footnote in Nitzan and Bichler’s recent piece (which I haven’t yet read) and, Lo, there appeared in the piece quite a few a Peter Turchin explicit mentions and footnotes. I’d be interested to read your take:

    No rush. It’s a fledgling hypothesis.

  10. Some random thoughts and observations on India and Hindu nationalism:

    — I don’t claim to have my finger on the Indian pulse, but from where I see, the country today provides fertile soil for pan-Indian populisms. Hindu nationalism is one of them, and just happens to have the upper hand now because it is led by a political genius.

    — Another pan-Indian populism that seemed to have great promise a few years ago but fizzled out was the anti-corruption movement. One of that movement’s leaders, Kejriwal still happens to hold political power in the capital. This was very much an anti-elite movement, though based on class rather than culture.

    — It cannot be emphasized how much resentment of our erstwhile cultural elite (the Congress and fellow-travelers) has been a factor in the rise of support for Hindu nationalism. They were seen by many “common” people as English-lovers or West-lovers, even though their foreign policy postures were quite anti-West (Non-Aligned Movement and all that.) Here’s a somewhat recent article that hints at how much resentment common people, especially in the Hindi belt feel towards the dominance of English in their homelands:

    — Modi seems to be trying to fuse together multiple strands of populist feeling to perpetuate his and his party’s dominance. Exhibit A is the highly misguided and unwise demonetization policy carried out last year, which caused some harm (though hopefully temporary) to the economy. But the policy was and remains wildly popular among common Indians, who felt that the PM was sticking it to the fat cats who parked “black” money overseas, spent a lot of time abroad, looked down upon other Indians, etc. Other than this, Modi doesn’t seem to have too many bright ideas to fix the problems plaguing the country. Either that, or he’s figured out he really can’t wield too much real power in the Indian federal structure.

    — India has been going through a rapid “nationalization” process just as the world is going through globalization. Internal migrations across regions and cultural zones, relatively rare a few decades ago, are ubiquitous today. Hindi is widely spoken in the big cities of the South, at a level I would not have dreamed of twenty years ago. Region in India still has salience, but less so than in the past. Hindu identity is something people are picking on as a common identity. Another thing I notice these days are headscarves. Lots of Muslim women wearing them. Even as recently as in the 90s, I can’t remember seeing any headscarves. Indian Muslim women used to wear saris or salwars like other women; a few orthodox ones would wear burqas. Perhaps this is the Saudi effect? I think they are not letting up on funding mosques and Islamization everywhere they can. these sorts of changes may also push Hindus into getting more stridently nationalist.

  11. It seems to me that this new supranational elite identity (some call it globalism) that predominates at Davos, Bilderberg conferences, etc. is really more of a western phenomenon than anything else. Western elites no longer find their own nations to be useful in advancing their interests, so the western nation-state is being deconstructed bit by bit.

    I don’t think that’s happening outside the west, though. Non-western elites still seem to have a pretty robust and parochial conception of their country’s national interests.

  12. Obama’s presidency did not herald a post-racial era, but a more racial era!

    You sure it’s not just a short backlash to an ongoing trend? If one compares the 1950s (or even the 80s) to the Trump presidency, which is more racial?

  13. Razib: I don’t disagree with most of what you said. I abominate the globalist elite, and I think we are on a toboggan ride to perdition. But I abominate the Iranian Regime.

    V.S. Naipaul: Among the Believers and Beyond Belief.

    “Iran’s complex of crises catches up with the regime: The weight of banking, pension and water problems, plus its expensive military adventures, are dragging the country into a deep sense of malaise”
    By David P. Goldman January 3, 2018

    LIFE – Jan 1, 1945 – Page 63 – Google Books Result
    Vol. 18, No. 1 – ‎Magazine
    He was studying to become a Russian Orthodox priest but he found revolutionary ideas more exciting. How? First there is the legend of Stalin’s wonderful storehouse of knowledge, both classical and practical. His speeches and his conversations are often studded with allusions to Greek mythology, to Aristotle, Plato, Hegel,

  14. which is more racial

    The Obama Presidency destroyed the idea that there will ever be a “post racial” society. That’s the difference; that wasn’t clear, until now, to many of us.

  15. You should write for Breitbart.

    you should comment there. hear that they specialize in asshole trolls.

    I abominate the globalist elite, and I think we are on a toboggan ride to perdition. But I abominate the Iranian Regime.

    uh, so this is awkward. i’m obv not an oligarch or wealthy, but i’m pretty much part of the globalist cosmopolitan class (or aspire to be). i didn’t say anything that indicated i was NEGATIVE against them.

    as for the iranian regime, i do dislike it. but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be objective.

    the truth is that a regime without much popularity couldn’t last for 40 years. even communism in the soviet union had support in the early years.

  16. before i had children my discretionary income was higher. i recall visiting restaurants and other various experiences galore. life was sequence of rich consumption binges.

    things are different now with 3 children.

    that being said have friends with children who are “1%” who have full-time live-in nannies. they live a very different life. i assume this is what the successful global class people can experience and look fwd to indefinitely. it makes sense they don’t need ‘meaning’, life is a sequence of fun, salient, and novel experiences.

  17. Ok, I can try to be substantive.

    I am not part of the global elite, but I am grateful toward them. We live in a time of peace and plenty for most, and the neoliberal elite have brought us here. (Not the same as the .1% as many of the ultra rich aren’t in the global class– see Bekah Mercer or the Walton heirs).

    Their opponents, mainly communists, Islamists, and various nationalists, are a noxious bunch. A loot bag of deplorables with one ugly trait in common — they think politics, statecraft, and the “Nation” should give their lives meaning because they can’t find it in their personal lives.

    (The triple blows of the 2000s – 9/11, the Iraq war, and the financial crisis — severely weakened popular trust in our global elite and Davos men, and rightly so. But the solution is incremental change to a better neoliberalism and a more humble global class)

  18. Razib, I still don’t see how these other systems, whether Shia Islam or Hindu nationalism or whatever, are offering any kinda alternate model of how to organize a wealthy, industrialized society.

    What does Shia thought have to contribute about organizing a society mostly freed from the pressures of hunger, disease and warfare? How long would a wealthy, secure China pointlessly put up with a system suitable for a weak and poor nation?

    Values are adapted to a lifestyle. Keeping nomadic values isn’t really a viable option if you’ve ceased to be a nomad, all you can do is add some stylistic touches and pretend.

  19. Ikram,

    I wouldn’t call working conditions where the old 9-5 or approximate with weekends off seems like incredible luxury, and this not even for good money, nor Europe great successes. Not to mention actual slavery

    The superrich can pay for their own schemes.

    I speak as one with even closer ties to those with live in nannies

    Technological advance has given us incredible comforts, but I’ll be no slave. Davosians had better be careful about usurping the natural order

  20. Razib, I’m stressing again the necessity of reading “Web of Debt, by Ellen Brown”.


  21. Obs,

    I completely agree that, “Inflation is not determined by the absolute amount of money in the flow, but by its use in the real world economy.” If there is lots more money but people just hold it, there can be deflation. If they spend every dollar as soon as it comes in, there will be inflation.

    However, the idea that there are two pretty much separate systems, money and the real world, is ridiculous. People want money because it gives them power in the real world. And what people do with money affects the real world–everywhere and always.

    A connection can be “indirect” and be very powerful. The connection between water coursing through a dam five hundred miles away and me writing this comment is indirect, but without that water, there would be no electricity and no comment. In a modern economy, many, many, many connections are indirect. That doesn’t make them any less real.

  22. Roger Sweeney,

    There’s nothing Obs isn’t saying that can’t be supported by the global savings glut hypothesis.

    An excess of savings in the global capital markets led to inflated asset prices over the last twenty years (first stocks, then real estate, and now stocks again), as well as persistently low interest rates, even in the face of rapid economic growth.

    There was more money than there were good investments. That led to weird situations such as wealthy countries, like the U.S., borrowing from developing countries, like China, when economic theory says it should be the opposite.

    Nominal inflation remains low because …

    1) there were labor surpluses, which keep the cost of labor down, and labor is an important component to inflation …

    2) mass consumer goods are not being purchased by the people who have the excess money, so the prices for many goods remain stable (the same was not true for luxury goods – see CLEWI index), and …

    3) the price of oil is at moderate levels, but even its price spikes over the last decade fed back into the global savings glut since the Arab nations just sent their money back into the developed countries to be reinvested.

  23. Difference maker,

    I can’t speak to your personal experience, but in general it is not true that “9 to 5” work hours are an incredible luxury.

    Using OECD data, people in all rich countries have been steadily working fewer hours per week since 1950. Today, Germans work the least (1300 hours per year). Generally poorer oecd countries (Mexico, Greece Lithuania) work more (about 2200 hours) and rich ones work less.

    The proportion of people who work extra long hours is also low (around 10%).

    The exception to this rule is the USA, where the decline in hours worked per week stopped in 1980. Americans work 1700 hours a year or about 33 hours a week. Other measures show Americans work even more, around 45 hours a week for those who have full time jobs.

    Explanations for long American hours vary (lack of vacation entitlements, “overwork” cultural, low pay etc).


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