In October 2021, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released the Pandora Papers, a collection of leaked tax haven files exposing the secret offshore holdings of more than 400 heads of state, political officials, and celebrities. It was one small window into the secretive world of wealth and power of the people who actually run the world, including the likes of former International Monetary Fund director Dominique Strauss-Kahn and former British prime minister Tony Blair.
Also among the luminaries implicated, in this case as the named beneficiary of a German consultant’s investment income from a Spanish-Saudi investment fund, was a throwback: “His Majesty King Juan Carlos Borbón de Borbón.” It’s almost hard to see why an ex-king of a former European imperial power would bother engaging in international monetary fraud. After all, Juan Carlos I acquired what political power he has to speak of in the old fashioned way: His parents were literal royalty. As for many of the political rulers of old, his position in the ruling class was a freebie.
Juan Carlos I is a child of the famed House of Bourbon, one of the more successful dynastic houses in Europe for the last millennium. Over the centuries, the House of Bourbon extended its reign over substantial European territory: the “Neapolitan Bourbons” ruled Naples and Sicily, and the Orleans branch of the family came a coup away from dominion over the Empire of Brazil. Juan Carlos’s ancestors included Louis XIV, a grandfather of too many degrees of “great” to count, who is remembered for his staunch embrace of the “divine right of kings” and his many child-producing affairs. A couple greats down the line, it also included Louis XVI, remembered mostly for blundering his way into the French Revolution (and the notable affair with Madame Guillotine that followed).
The Bourbons are just one of the many famed dynasties of old Europe. The Tudors and Stuarts built a grand British empire from the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland; the Habsburgs ruled the Holy Roman Empire for four centuries and even provided an emperor of Mexico once. Dynastic houses are by no means a European phenomenon: The House of Aisin-Gioro managed to hold power in China for over three centuries until the country became a republic in 1911; the House of Osman and the House of Solomon held the Ottoman and Ethiopian empires respectively for the better part of a millennium.
This may go some distance to explaining why some of today’s royal heirs can’t be bothered with the old royal house rules and intrigues. Princess Mako of Japan gave up her royal title as a member of the Imperial House of Japan to marry a commoner, Kei Komuro. She might expect a sympathetic ear from Prince Harry of the relatively historically recent House of Windsor, who famously married famed but non-royal actress Meghan Markle. Despite what one might suppose from the firestorm of controversy this decision ignited, it’s not clear that it matters much. As Patrick Freyne pointed out in The Irish Times, only one of the two houses, of Windsor and of “Californian celebrity,” has a future—and “it’s the one with the Netflix deal.” These days, it would be more accurate to call Queen Elizabeth “Meghan Markle’s grandmother-in-law” than “the ruler of England.”
The royals and the houses that generate them are clearly the old guard. But what’s the new guard? It is hard to explain why we are not already asking the question, despite growing polarization led by anti-elite sentiment. Doug Henwood recently took a shot at explaining a left version of this reluctance over at Jacobin: “The core concept of Marxism is class struggle, but the tradition exhibits a strange dearth of investigation of the ruling class.”
Maybe past power arrangements were so simple and unsubtle that there wasn’t much point in developing an intellectual tradition around identifying the ruling class. Any European serf who wanted to know who was in charge could help themselves to some obvious guesses: maybe the guy with the big gold crown, or the one who owns the land you harvest grain on and helps himself to a share, or the ones sending your sons off to die in battles over places no member of your family has ever been to. An African put on a slave ship and shipped off to labor camps in South America, the Caribbean, or the United States would be able to spot their owner and thus conceive of the local power structure as plain as day. Colonized subjects in the Americas, on the African continent, and in South Asia knew who reigned supreme: the ones who showed up out of nowhere with guns and a flag and started demanding that you speak a new language.
But the end of the era of the Bourbons and Habsburgs was also the beginning of a global era in which power diversified (in many senses) and also announced itself a bit less. Our new power structures are dizzyingly complex: Financial flows and even ownership structures are guarded behind byzantine assortments of legal documents and shell companies, supply chains for products so convoluted that the companies making products don’t even understand them—strategic as this carefully cultivated ignorance may be. This is in no small part why it took the largest journalistic investigation in human history to sift through the 2.94 terabytes of data leaked to 600 journalists at 150 publications just to figure out which political leaders owned which summer châteaus.
These obfuscations don’t disguise just wealth but also the power structures that rule our lives. They shield the corporate landlords evicting people from their homes, the agribusiness tycoons behind land grabs, and the profiteers behind abusive labor conditions and genocidal conflict. Cultural changes add to the obfuscation: Billionaires and even royalty often dress like grubby hipsters or regular business types.
In a series of articles to follow, I’ll examine three kinds of answers to the question of who and what runs the world.
Maybe the world is stuck in the pocket of “Big Guns”—people and institutions organized around violence, like militaries and mafias. A classic alternative answer blames “Big Green”: The key to understanding our political reality is to follow the institutions organized around money, like asset managers and multinational corporations. Or, maybe the information age has changed everything, and now power truly resides in “Big Graphs”: the people and institutions organized around knowledge, like think tanks and the tech industry.
Whichever route we go, we can help ourselves to a basic starting assumption: Whoever the ruling people and organizations are, they are probably among the fantastically wealthy. After all, we can guess that a banana republic costs quite a bit more than $10. Whoever’s doing the ruling and however it’s done, it has to be sustained by a substantial amount of money and wealth.
But how wealthy are the rulers, exactly? If money is the whole ballgame—going all in on Big Green—then perhaps we should simply expect the rulers to be the richest people on earth. On the other hand, if the Big Guns or Big Graphs theories are right, money plays a more instrumental role. We should expect the rulers to have enough riches to buy soldiers and politicians, but not necessarily to be the absolutely wealthiest people or institutions.
These differences in thinking about different kinds of power match up with different ways of answering the question: How much could a banana republic cost?