The Bankers of the Round Table

The Bankers of the Round Table

Over the centuries, the powers that be have tended to be less than shy about many aspects of their global domination.

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There’s no way that just one person could rule the world, right? That would take an absurd, comic-book-supervillain amount of money. But at COP26 earlier this year, former Bank of England governor Mark Carney said, “Hold my beer.”

Welcome to the third entry in the series “How Much Could a Banana Republic Cost?,” where we use that question to help figure out who and what rules the world. The first post set up our candidates: Big Guns (armies, militias, and mafias), Big Graphs (technocrats and knowledge companies), and Big Green (investors, corporations, or individual plutocrats). The second explained why our formal political officials aren’t necessarily the only ones in charge, using the example of the United Fruit Company’s de facto reign in Guatemala.

The third post was our first foray into the three theories, trying out a “Monopoly” version of the Big Green approach. If this view is right, then there are definitely rulers of particular chunks of the world like squares in a Monopoly game, even if no one controls the whole board. Owning a little charter city or other small chunk of the world might cost you only $40,000,000—a much smaller number than the number the United Fruit Company put on the actual historical banana republic of Guatemala: $202,014,343.21 in 2021 dollars.

But you could think Big Green is the right story about who runs the world while still thinking there is something wrong with the Monopoly model. The squares-on-a-gameboard approach might be a bit too neat and tidy. After all, we live in a globalized, highly connected world, not one of neatly separable parts that have nothing to do with one another. Connections between and across the various parts of the world determine what even the local overlords can get away with. The elected government of Guatemala found out the hard way when it tried to defy the United Fruit Company and its imperial backer in the form of the United States federal government and the CIA. The would-be owners of different parts of the world certainly party together—why shouldn’t we think that they plot together? If they do, and if the richest plotters can effectively decide which other plots are likely to succeed or fail, then the Monopoly theory of the ruling class might overstate the separateness of different “squares” on the global game board.

Let’s call this different interpretation the “Round Table” theory. On the Round Table version of the Big Green theory, the world is under the control of a few well-positioned rich folks or organizations who are actively coordinating their efforts, despite the occasional conflict or rivalry—like King Arthur’s fabled Round Table of olde.

Some of you may be thinking this is already starting to sound like some of the more crackpot conspiracy theories that posit a shadowy group of secret elites, from the recent QAnon phenomenon to the long-standing Illuminati idea and its more anti-Semitic cousins.

But we should note that secret plots needn’t be a major part of our theory at all. Over the centuries, the powers that be have tended to be less than shy about many aspects of their global domination. The Bretton Woods conference that designed major institutions of today’s international system around the goals and interests of the richest countries in the world happened in a New Hampshire hotel, not a clandestine bunker.

If you wanted to find a roundtable of shot-callers, you could do a lot worse than banks. Even private banks have long had a pivotal role in global politics. Senator Robert Taft described big banks’ political interest bitterly in 1952 after losing the Republican presidential nomination to Eisenhower: “Every Republican candidate for President since 1936 has been nominated by the Chase National Bank.” The Haitian revolution abolished slavery and won national independence from France at a steep price: France extorted the new country of Haiti for 150 million francs in 1825. Nearly a century later, debt that Haiti was still paying was acquired by the New York–based Citibank in 1921. This is just one episode of private banks and their “dark finance” exerting power over whole governments in this era, as historian Peter Hudson chronicles in the aptly titled book Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean. And not much has changed since: Citigroup (which owns Citibank) was revealed by Wikileaks in 2008 to have basically selected President Obama’s cabinet.

The political relevance of central banks is a bit more obvious. Central banks can affect the amount of money circulating in society and the behavior of commercial banks, both of which have implications for who can find work and who can afford goods.

But don’t sleep on asset managers. Since the 2008 financial crisis, asset management companies have ballooned in size so much that the top two asset management firms alone control nearly $20 trillion worth of assets—for scale, that value represents about the size of the entire American economy in 2017. It is this sheer scale that gives managers like Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management firm, “a voice in the international effort to fight global warming.” Fink, Benjamin Braun and Adrienne Buller describe “asset manager capitalism” as one that runs on a “socialize risk, privatize reward” model: strong-arming governments into putting up public funds as guarantors for private investments.

Mark Carney somehow pulled Excalibur from the stone and established a Round Table of global capital involving both banks and asset management firms at COP26 this year. They call themselves the “Glasgow Financial Alliance For Net-Zero.” The banks, asset managers, and companies of the Glasgow Round Table represent a gargantuan $130 trillion of assets under management—more than a quarter of the combined wealth on planet Earth.

BlackRock’s Fink called climate change a “business opportunity,” since addressing it requires that “virtually every segment of industry will have to be reinvented.” But the structure of industry is the structure of production: the processes that decide whose material needs get met, the working conditions of those whose work meets those needs. Combined with the fact that we are also deciding who is going to have a lot of green in the future, and you have a fundamental reshaping of our total social and political system, not just our industries. And Braun and Buller give us a preview of how Fink and the asset managers at the Round Table might vote for this reshaping to go: letting investors “bet on the shape of the future economy while marketing themselves as best equipped to mitigate climate risk.”

At this rate, who will be in charge of the new world we have to build in response to climate crisis? If you side with scholars like Ann Pettifor, you can see the possibilities for a way out of a Big Green future: renationalizing pensions, putting “shadow banking” under regulatory control, and generally finding ways for public institutions to discipline capital.

But if you buy the Round Table version of the Big Green theory, then the smart money is on the Knights of Glasgow—and about $130,000,000,000,000 worth of it. Don’t take it from me; take it from the United States’ national climate adviser, who admits that “the question won’t be whether the private sector is going to buy into it; the private sector is going to drive it.” And if they happen to drive it in the direction of what’s good for asset prices rather than vulnerable communities, well, you can’t say the Round Table theory didn’t warn you.

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