Global Elites: Who Are They, How & Why Should We Care?

I just attended the annual meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society: ESS 2017. I focused on three sessions of research about the upper classes. With some leftover “Discussant” energy, I wrote the below on the train ride home. Happy to report that window seats still encourage contemplation.

I. Globalized and Diversified Upper Class

Research reported at ESS 2017 supports what Zweigenhaft & Domhoff noted back in 1998: the upper class has diversified. We can see it internally in Patricia Banks’ multiracial patrons of the arts and in hedge fund clients, if rarely managers (Megan Tobias Neely). We see it internationally in the diversity of people dropping six figures for a night of partying (Ashley Mears) and sheltering their eight figures offshore through Mossack Fonseca (Brooke Harrington).

Globalization is also evident in the routine international travel by the subjects of Yossi Harpaz, of Hugo Ceron-Anaya, and of Patrick Inglis. Crossing national borders, for business or pleasure or to add a second citizenship (Harpaz), will likely remain available to the upper classes even as most people’s travel becomes more controlled by the new nationalism of Brexit and Trumpism.

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II. Global Ruling Class?

Yes, we see diversification of millionaires and billionaires. But do the people of the upper class form a powerful ruling class? This is a longstanding debate in sociology (with 1950s American origins). At ESS 2017, John Clarry showed the turnover and geographic spread of billionaires, in order to suggest they probably don’t gel into a Transnational Capitalist Class (Sklair 2001). But I’m afraid this is a pitfall of methodological individualism, akin to looking only at the student portraits in a yearbook. An investigation of the pages of photos of graduating seniors, even if exhaustive, is inadequate. To check on cohesion and power, look for what faces reappear at, say, the spread for the school newspaper and the yearbook staff. How (if at all) did students get selected into those groups? How much space is devoted to them, and who influences the space allocation? Who is spotlighted in the Acknowledgements and who co-authors the Acknowledgements?

(A provocative question from Clarry: Will upper class cohesiveness be weakened by diversity? Time will tell.)

The upper class, even here in the “meritocratic” USA, has many mechanisms to facilitate its ruling class consciousness and practices of power. These include isolating (or segregating or privatizing) their lives residentially, academically (Khan 2013), culturally (Kendall 2002), and socially (see list at Sherwood 2013:134). Elites influence public discourse, without evidence or even despite it. I enjoyed Cristobal Young’s takedown of the “don’t raise taxes or the millionaires will flee” myth.

On the social exclusiveness: Ceron-Anaya and Inglis show that exclusive private clubs let elites build social capital in cities around the world. This facilitates an interlocking directorate and other business dealings. The controversy over the President’s use of Mar-a-Lago just raises the profile of a process documented from Bohemian Grove (Domhoff 1974) to the World Economic Forums in Davos.

III. How and Why We Should Pursue

1. intersectionally

People who are dominant, or superordinate, by class were of course the focus of the three sessions I attended. (118, 147, and 245 in your ESS Program.) However, I wish there were more attention to the ways that class dominance interacts with hierarchies of gender, race and nation. I’ll admit this is self-serving, since I’m the one with “Matrix of Privilege” in a book title. But it could also be fruitful!

Plenty of people have observed that Trump supporters in general aren’t cheering just his multimillionaire status, but the whole package. Trump is also a flag-waving white American who has boasted of his superior genes, and a performer of a caricature of hetero-masculinity. (Glad to see Kimmel, and Pascoe & Bridges, doing the public sociology there.)

Similarly, in Mears’ study, club promoters bring attractive young women to party with the “whales” spending $100,000 for a VIP evening. The practice reinscribes both the gendered character of the upper class and the financial aspect of men’s sexual exploitation of women. Elsewhere at businesswomen’s networking events (Ethel Mickey), upper class achievement is marketed along with hetero-feminine pressures pushing “wellness” as a euphemism for attractiveness.

We, social scientists, have to consider the ways in which divisions of race-ethnicity and nation influence class inequalities. Specifically, these divisions are often upheld and exploited by the ruling class.

The real-time reminder from Johnny E. Williams resonated. He wrote from ESS that whiteness and white supremacy are used “to exercise control over racialized “others.” Investigate how this oppressive power operates imperceptibly in all major societal institutions that generate and sustain society’s material, social, and ideological reality.”

Of everything I heard at ESS, I was most dismayed by Rakkoo Chung’s report. He showed how, in transitioning from colonial to authoritarian to “democratic” regimes, elites in Nigeria manipulated ethnic/tribal tensions to maintain their power nationally. South Korea saw similar transitions, but with without diversity to exploit, elites successfully manufactured regional tensions for the same purpose.

The ruling classes, nationally and internationally, will not publicize maneuvers like these. They’re more likely to make the papers for lifestyle trivia. But that’s precisely why social scientists have important work to do.

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2. critically

I appreciated it when presenters announced that elites should be studied in order to expose and critique their practices. In fact, any program of research should have the same two-fold rationale, in my opinion, of the Sociology major itself: 1. It’s fun to learn more about groups of people, and 2. It is crucial to do what we can to make the world a better place. (“Change the world” even appears in the recent SSRC .pdf statement of essential competencies in Sociology. Right on!)

Reporting on the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” is fun, but we as a field must not stop there. We must do better than the faux anthropology of Primates of Park Ave. If what I produce is perfectly palatable to elites, then I’m failing to expose and critique. And potentially, I am being co-opted into part of the elites’ PR machine. (Lynn Chancer may have suggested that happened with elite scholars in France, but I’m not certain.) This can happen through the fun of the work; but as sociologists since Merton and Kohn have warned, one who spends too much time walking and quacking with the ducks risks becoming a duck.

At ESS, Shamus Khan called for prioritizing empirical work over theoretical work. He said that theory development can come once we have done more discovery of parallels and contrasts among cases. I do see, in this field, parallels both tangible and intangible. On the material side there are the financial and legal instruments that elites can influence (through think-tanks, PACs, etc.) and then leverage (with attorneys, accountants, wealth managers) to grow their wealth and power. On the intangible side, we should all be on guard against rhetoric of meritocratic individualism and the “libertarian anarchism” (Harrington) of the elites.

I don’t have predictions about where the field is heading. But whether we prioritize the empirical or the theoretical, I hope that research on elites continues to grow in its intersectionality and in its criticism. Elites have outsize power for, and record of, damaging lives by the thousands.

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With that in mind, let’s embrace Toto as our mascot and critical exposure as our guiding principle.

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