At the start of 2015, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, caused ripples in the publishing and news worlds when he made a public declaration about the value of reading books. Reporter interest though was sparked as much by the fact that Zuckerberg endorsed reading books at all, as it was his by his first choice of reading material: Moisés Naím’s The End of Power.
Naím, who has had multiple high-level careers in business, politics, academia and journalism, presents a particular thesis about the decline of elite power. Whether in politics, war, religion or business, the story is the same. ‘In the 21st Century, power is easier to get, harder to use – and easier to lose ... power is decaying’. For those in high positions, the conscious wielding of power, according to Naím, becomes ever harder. At the same time, because entry barriers have reduced and society changes so fast, there are always new challengers from below. ‘Micropower’ continually brings down ‘large, centralized modern organisations’.
Naím’s book is not alone in documenting the declining powers of leaders everywhere. Mark Mizruchi traces the waning political influence of US business heads in The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite. Along with Michael Useem, he records the atomisation of business leaders, as institutional shareholder power forces CEOs to drop their wider political and social activities and concentrate on raising share prices. The powerless elite is also a theme of critical political scholars, such as Hay and Mair. They observe how the outsourcing of policy-making and control to external experts and private corporations undermines the political elite's power and influence.
Naím’s book has obviously reflected a zeitgeist that has penetrated the upper circles of today’s global elite, especially those in business. They know they are enormously wealthy. Even official Davos documents and leaders of the World Bank and IMF are now prone to bouts of hand-wringing about the problem of inequality. But, at the same time, these leaders are quick to separate the fact of their wealth from what they do and from traditional notions of power. More than that, they exude a sense of frustration that they cannot drive forward their grander personal visions. Media, unions and NGOs, regulations, transnational institutions, uncontrollable economic flows and financial markets, all stand in their way. No one can predict what government elections will bring, or how the whim of a Putin, an OPEC member, or a radical new party leader might suddenly bring political and economic chaos. Most seem genuinely perplexed when it comes to explaining the causes of the financial crisis and why they, like almost everyone else, never saw it coming. They also know the public blame them, as they protest their innocence. Measures of public trust in politicians, business leaders and political institutions now sits extremely low in many established democracies.
There is, in fact, quite a lot of evidence that can be used to support this elite perception of powerlessness and uncertainty. As Naím himself points out, between 1977 and 2011 the number of countries ruled by all-powerful autocrats dropped from 89 to 22. In established democracies everywhere, newer more radical parties at the edges of the political spectrum (Tea Party, Front National, UKIP, Jobbik, Syriza) have battered established parties and paralysed political systems. Compare the list of FTSE 100 companies, or the Fortune 500 in the US, two or three decades ago and now. A majority of them, once household names, have either disappeared or been merged or restructured into something unrecognisable. So too, the financial crisis ended in some of the largest banks and financial institutions (Lehmans, RBS, AIG, Fannie Mae, Fortis, Lloyds) either collapsing or being nationalised. Thus, everywhere one looks, there are no guarantees for large, long-established institutions. The big fund managers, manufacturers and investment banks of a decade ago, have now been usurped by hedge fund managers and new technology start-ups.
The key experience of today’s elite is one of perpetual change and insecurity. The average company share is now held for a matter of months (not several years as before) and most trading is conducted by high frequency traders with no interest in, or loyalty to, what they trade. According to Freeland, the average tenure of a US CEO is 3.5 years, down from 9.5 years a decade ago. In the UK, a third of FTSE 100 CEOs last less than two years in a post and two thirds are there less than five years. Similarly, UK government ministers, since the 1980s have lasted on average only 2.5 years in their.
So, are our leaders more powerless now than they once were? Are they richer but not stronger? I would argue no. How power works has changed, but power remains, as does its benefits for the powerful and its impact on the rest of us. The nature of power has changed, as the types of leader and organisation we have has shifted, but power, elites and inequality are as strong as ever.
Depressingly, Naím’s analysis is nothing new. It is only a little different to that posed by Robert Dahl in the 1960s and the many pluralists who have come since. For decades, political scientists have presented a picture of competing elites and pluralist interests which cancel each other out. Naím’s position is pretty much the same, only with globalisation and digitalisation as added garnish. In many ways, this image of elite fragmentation and powerlessness then replays an old, established trope. Back in the 1950s, C Wright Mills made this very same point:
The opposite view – of the elites as impotent – is now quite popular among liberal minded observers ... the elites are thought to be so scattered as to lack any coherence as a historical force ... American men of power tend, by convention, to deny that they are powerful.
The denials are as problematic now as they were then. What we have is new types of elite rather the end of elites per se. Go back a century or two and it was royalty, the nobility and the clergy who made up the elite. In Mills’s time it was the leaders of political, business and military institutions. Looking at the Forbes Rich List now, and the new emerging elites (by wealth anyway) are financiers and new technology entrepreneurs. Looking at the UK’s Rich List, the Queen, who topped the poll back in 1989, is no longer in the top 300. Change occurs ever faster, partly because finance and technological innovation change rapidly too. And so the potential for the rapid metamorphosis of elites is stronger too, giving rise to a sense of precariousness.
For Naím, Zuckerberg and many others, their view of pluralism, meritocracy and change reflects their own self-image, as well as their social ethos. Change is positive. The ability of the new and different to challenge the old and established is healthy for democracies and markets, Naím argues. Zuckerberg himself, is portrayed as a self-made man who took on the Harvard establishment and big corporate players to build his revolutionary business (Naím is big on the word ‘revolution’ too). Facebook, as with many new hi-tech players, trades on its ‘empowerment’ of ordinary people and a challenger rhetoric about enforcing accountability on governments and others.
Whilst institutions and post-holders change more quickly today, elites do not simply disappear or take early retirements. Government ministers move from department to department, sometimes holding many key posts in a successful administration. They, along with senior civil servants, go on to take well-paid positions on corporate and other institutional boards. CEOs take other top posts or become Chair(wo)men and non-executive directors, again highly paid, in other companies. The revolving doors between finance, big business and government go ever faster. Elite positions may be more short-term, but many top elites have long enduring careers floating on the carousels of power.
In fact, mobility and precariousness have in many ways become a virtue for powerful, rich elites operating in unstable economic systems and national polities. Indeed, the very basis of power for elites rests on their abilities to move between multiple jobs and networks, across government, business, media, the military and high finance. Employees of the US Fed, who formerly worked for Goldman Sachs, then set new regulatory structures as government employees before then returning to Goldman or another investment bank to profit from leveraging that expert regulatory knowledge. So too, members of the ‘neocon core’ at the centre of the Bush administration, moved across positions in US Defense to congressional committees to their posts on business consultancies and private defence contractors, gaining influence and financial rewards from US invasions in the Middle East.
Globalisation and international mobility obviously benefits the new global elites too. Russian Oligarchs, Chinese Communist Party members, and US hi-tech entrepreneurs, can now flit from country to country, having several residences and parking liquid and non-liquid assets in any number of countries and tax havens. When a state becomes hostile (Russia) or unstable (Greece) or more regulatory, so elites can keep their resources, assets and networks, and just move on. They can leave and find security in mobility and precariousness in ways that the other 99% cannot.
What is also significant is the huge wealth that elites now accumulate. Such capital generation is not simply about unfairness or inequality, it both causes inequality and is a source of power in itself – a sort of pure money power. Piketty recently showed just how inequality had begun to speed up with each decade since the 1970s propelling us towards a return to 19th Century levels of disparity. In 1998, FTSE 100 CEO pay was 47 times that of the average employee. By 2012 it was 185 times. Last year, Oxfam noted that the 85 richest people in the world (it is now even less) owned as much in financial terms as the lowest 3.5 billion. Mark Zuckerberg, being number 16 on Forbes’s Rich List for 2015, is one of these. The super-rich are ably supported by the ranks of the just very rich. According to Frank Knight there are now over 172,000 Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWIs) with financial assets (excluding homes) of over $30 million in the world.
Wealth and power do not directly correlate, but having huge amounts of wealth is a means to several advantages which then produce power. These begin with gaining places at the most exclusive schools and social networks, increasing the chance of also going to an exclusive university, and then a position in a corporate or political network. But, it also means being able to employ the best lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, media managers and technical experts. Whether one wants to overcome local planning restrictions, buy and sell-off a large company for quick profits, change an industry regulatory regime, alter a tax status, or hide huge financial assets abroad, wealth generates wealth and influence in numerous new ways. The mass of the rest of the population may then be subjected to down-sizing, having their pay cut and insecure working contracts imposed, losing access to affordable homes, and so on, all as a consequence of self-interested and disconnected decision-making in elite circles. These same elites may not think they are directly exercising power over others but, of course, that is what they are doing. If power, narrowly defined, is about ‘A’ getting ‘B’ to do things that are in the interests of A rather than B then elites are wielding tremendous amounts of power, whether conscious or not.
In effect, elites and power remain very much attached. Elites and institutions may appear more fragmented, transitory and insecure. Who ruled then and now may have changed considerably. Direct, conscious control of organisational structures, markets and populations may be far more difficult and complex than it once was. But, elite types, institutions and the means of wielding power continue, albeit in rather different forms. They have adapted, as has capitalism itself, to the changes brought by globalisation, digitalisation and financialisation. And wealth and power remain very much concentrated in individuals and networks at the top.
Aeron Davis is Professor of Political Communication at Goldsmiths College. He is the author of Political Communication and Social Theory (2010). He has conducted research on the public relations industry, trade union campaigning, the London Stock Exchange, financial and political news journalism, and the UK Parliament. His new book, Promotional Cultures, has just been published by Polity Press.
 Naím, M (2013) The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What it Used to Be, New York: Basic Books.
 Ibid., 14, 22
 Mizruchi, M (2013) The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
 Useem, M (2015) ‘From Classwide Coherence to Company-Focused Management and Director Engagement’ in Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 43, pp 399-421.
 Hay, C (2007) Why We Hate Politics, Cambridge: Polity, Mair, P (2013) Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy, London: Verso.
 Naím, M (2013) The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What it Used to Be, New York: Basic Books, p.17.
 Freeland, C (2012) Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich, London: Penguin.
 Davis, A (2010) Political Communication and Social Theory, London: Routledge.
 Dahl, R (1961) Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City, New Haven: Yale University Press.
 Mills, C Wright (1956) The Power Elite, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.16-17.
 see Wedel, J (2009) Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government and the Free Market, New York: Basic Books, Ferguson, C (2012) Inside Job: The Financiers Who Pulled Off the Heist of the Century, Oxford: Oneworld Publications and Cave, T and Rowell, A (2014) A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain, London: Random House
 Ferguson, C (2012) Inside Job: The Financiers Who Pulled Off the Heist of the Century, Oxford: Oneworld Publications.
 Wedel, J (2009) Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government and the Free Market, New York: Basic Books.
 see Freeland, C (2012) Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich, London: Penguin, Dorling, D (2014) Inequality and the 1%, London: Verso and Birtchnell, J and Caletrio, J eds. (2014) Elite Mobilities, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
 Piketty, T (2014) Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press.
 High Pay Commission (Dec 2012) The State of Play: One Year on from the High Pay Commission, London: High Pay Commission
 Oxfam (2014) Wealth: Having it all and Wanting More, at:
 Freeland, C (2012) Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich, London: Penguin, Dorling, D (2014) Inequality and the 1%, London: Verso.