Revenge of the Nerds

Revenge of the Nerds

Has neoliberalism placed political power in the hands of consultants with calculators?


Zafo Ypi was having the hardest day of his life, but the 30 laid-off Romani workers camped out on his lawn were having an even rougher one. They begged their boss to save their jobs, appealing to his conscience and his politics: “I told them you’re a man of the people.…  You won’t let these children go hungry,” one man pleaded with him. But they were barking up the wrong tree. There were new rules, and Mr. Ypi didn’t make them.

Philosopher Lea Ypi tells the story of her father’s dilemma in her autobiographical book Free. The Ypi family lived in Albania, which had suffered centuries of imperial domination under the House of Osman’s Ottoman Empire before its gradual disintegration in the early 20th century opened the door to independence. During the Cold War, Albania was a member of the “Second World” of Soviet-aligned countries in opposition to the US-led “First World.” But the communist Party of Labour of Albania lost power in 1992—a fall that was followed by a “structural adjustment” in the direction of liberal democracy and a capitalist economy. It was in this period that Ypi’s father, Zafo, general director of Albania’s largest port, found himself with crowds of soon-to-be laid-off workers on his front lawn.

Welcome to the seventh entry in the series “How Much Could a Banana Republic Cost?,” where we’re still trying to figure out who and what rules the world. The first post introduced our candidates: Big Green (investors, corporations, or individual plutocrats), Big Guns (armies, militias, and mafias), and Big Graphs (technocrats and knowledge-based organizations). It also gave us a first estimate of an answer to the series’s titular question: $202,014,343.21 in 2021 dollars, based on the United Fruit Company’s extortion of the Guatemalan government.

The first theory we tried was Big Green: both a “Monopoly” version where the rich buy up individual and separable parts of our political world and a “Round Table” version where they work together to rule the whole world. These differently scoping possibilities came with wildly different price tags: buying a single Monopoly parcel of world to rule might be as cheap as $40 million, whereas taking on the whole world might cost an astronomical $130 trillion. The Big Guns theory gave us two additional possibilities: If the real rulers are political Strongmen in control of formal state militaries, we could put up an estimate of around $2 trillion, representing total global military spending), or, if the world is really run by Godfathers who control criminal underworlds or militias, we could try an estimate of $2.2 trillion—the 3 percent or so of world economic activity estimated to belong to the criminalized economy.

But if Big Graphs is the right theory, maybe we’ve gotten this all wrong. The preceding theories have treated ruling the world as though it were primarily about having the right literal physical stuff: dollars and land on the Big Green theory, bullets and opium on the Big Guns theory. But perhaps that is all too crude a picture of ruling the world, especially in today’s age of technological marvels. Ours is a “neoliberal” age where everything is brought under market rationality whether it produces economic value or not. The real rulers of the world do not rule via stock options nor M16s, but with spreadsheets and calculators.

Call today’s version of Big Graphs the “Revenge of the Nerds” theory. During the Cold War, while all the jocks were fighting and the more posh frat bros were playing Monopoly over parcels of the world, the real revolution was won by a quiet coup of bespectacled technocrats. Political rule doesn’t work via buying legal ownership or by coercive force via violence or the credible threat of violence, but by nimbly exploiting knowledge asymmetries.

Which brings us back to Albania. The workers on Zafo’s lawn were quite understandably mistaken about where the decision-making power lay. Years before, when the port might have been managed by the party, the person occupying the general director position may well have been the person making the call about whether costs could or should be cut. But the man who did make the rules, now that the World Bank was in charge of Albania’s transition from communism to capitalism, went by the name of Vincent Van de Berg. He was “a missionary of sorts,” in Lea Ypi’s phrase—but instead of carrying around a Bible in his rucksack, he came armed with the scripture of the Financial Times. Most importantly of all, he was an expert employed by the World Bank for his expertise on countries “in transition.” The details of said transition were Zafo’s to delay or adjust, but the big picture was above him as it was above most if not all Albanians: It lay in the hands of Van de Berg and the World Bank.

It wasn’t just Eastern Europe. Structural adjustment policies run by experts at the World Bank and other institutions cooked up in a more nakedly colonial era in Bretton Woods, N.H., “defined an era of development” throughout the Second and the Third World alike during the the 1980s and ’90s. Samuel Ojo Oloruntoba explains that the massive cuts in state spending on education and other social services demanded by the World Bank and other organizations shifted the intellectual agenda of modern African universities in the present day.

But when it comes to the “Revenge of the Nerds” theory, World Bank experts’ “structural adjustment” of other countries’ entire social and economic organizations is just the tip of a very large iceberg. The World Bank is at least an ostensibly public institution, though it is structurally skewed toward a global minority. But the US-educated “Chicago Boys” operated in a more mercenary fashion, dealing out their knowledge to the murderous autocrat Pinochet. Following their plans, Chile slashed public support for infrastructure, housing, education and social security, setting out on a path to become the most economically unequal OECD country by 2019.

Then there’s the private consultancy industry. The New York Times went as far as to refer to the private consultancy firm McKinsey and Company as “the godfather of management consulting” in an investigation that revealed that the company had conspired with the notoriously criminal South African House of Gupta to produce $700 million worth of advice on how the country could rescue its flailing energy utility. This is no one-off incident, as the Times investigation affirms: The company’s various secret agreements with governments around the world allow it to shape “everything from education, transportation, energy and medical care to the restructuring of economies and the fighting of wars.”

If this is the real way to make the entire world your very own banana republic, we could estimate how much you’d have to raise to do it using the estimated annual revenue of McKinsey and Company: a skinny $10 billion. If the “Revenge of the Nerds” theory is right, then technocrats have pulled off world domination for a paltry fraction of the trillions it would take Big Guns and Big Green.

You can’t say they aren’t clever. Why spend the money and take the risks of killing, capturing, buying, or extorting political decision-makers when you and a few fellow know-it-alls could control all of their decisions themselves—and make them give you their lunch money for it in the process?

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy