Great fortunes and world order

The current hyper-capitalist phase offers the big fortunes a key role on the transnational political scene. Peter Hägel investigates six of these billionaires who influence the political competition of a country or the priorities of international organizations.

Whether it is the Eastern European battles of George Soros pleading for an “open society” policy, the philanthropic investments of Bill Gates welcomed in 2005 as a true head of state at the podium of the World Health Assembly to inaugurate the “vaccine decade” of theWHO, or even the partisan commitments of the Australian Rupert Murdoch weighing with all his media weight on British politics in the service of the conservative party then the career of Tony Blair: the current hyper-capitalist phase continues to show the transnational political role of the wealthy established as key players and essential charismatic figures of liberal globalization. Various monographic works have followed the civic commitments of billionaires, but a survey that considers them as a new category of full-fledged actors on the international scene was lacking. This is what Peter Hägel proposes in a beautiful comparative investigation built on the analysis of six of these “ultra-rich” who have mobilized their fortune to influence political competition “from the outside” and “from abroad”. of a country, the course of a regime crisis, or even the definition of the priorities of international organizations.

We can only rejoice that international relations researchers are today contributing to the questions, classic in political sociology, on the political fungibility of economic capital, the discipline of RI having frequently locked itself into a set of idiosyncratic debates which have produced an effect of isolation with regard to the rest of the social sciences. It must be said that the question under examination has taken on new urgency since the vast surveys launched by Thomas Piketty and his colleagues have revealed, with supporting statistical series, the strong return of large concentrations of wealth – thus contradicting the optimism of Robert Dahl when he pointed out, in his famous skirmish with Wright Mills, the gradual transition of our democracies from the oligarchy of Gilded Age from the beginnings of XXe century to the pluralism of social interests. However, the last three decades have not only seen the exponential growth in the number of billionaires duly listed and classified by the magazine Forbes ; they will also have seen a profound renewal of this population in the wake of the formation of (quasi-)private monopolies (Microsoft, Google, etc.) and the development of extremely profitable markets in the field of finance, softwareor even digital.

If many researchers have been interested in the political consequences of this new economic situation, Peter Hägel offers an original angle of attack: instead of focusing on the work of influence and representation of interests of large multinational companies, he the choice to follow political causes individually by their leaders. This distinction from work collective defense of economic capital (lobbying) and commitments “ personal » of great fortunes is undoubtedly questionable and often fragile, but it allows us to take seriously the transnational political work of billionaires – from the defense of the Tamil community by Raj Rajaratnam to the support of Netanyahu’s ideas and political career by Sheldon Adelson, through the promotion of the liberal cause in the countries of the former Soviet bloc by George Soros, the promotion of a vaccination policy in favor of the poorest countries carried by the Gates couple, or even the fight against the dissemination of related ideas of climate transition initiated by the Koch brothers. Way of showing without doubt that the billionaires do not act, in this respect at least, as a “transnational capitalist class” à la Sklair (2001), but that they choose causes whose principle is also to be found in their individual trajectories, and particularly in their migration routes.

The question remains: how do these great fortunes seek to influence the politics of States and international organizations? Or, to put it another way, what are the limits policies of economic capital at a time when the free movement of capital constitutes one of the pillars of globalization and where States, reinvented in Competition States, do not hesitate to attract this same capital and these same “ultra-rich” by “commodifying” the attributes of their sovereignty – whether it be taxes (negotiated on a case-by-case basis), justice ( circumvented via arbitration), or even citizenship and passport (granted in exchange for tax residence). In short, how does this economic capital, which has acquired an “extra-territoriality” status over the last three decades and increasingly escapes the regulatory capacity of States, negotiate its local political effectiveness? The gallery of portraits of billionaires proposed by the author offers here a nice set of borderline cases: by the financial masses involved, since the Soros, Gates and other Koch brothers can mobilize considerable sums in the service of their causes – at the image of a Bill & Melina Gates Foundation which, with a cumulative expenditure of 3.2 billion dollars, has positioned itself in a few years as the third largest global financier of health, after the United States and the United Kingdom United, but ahead of the World Health Organization (for which it provides a significant part of the financing); but also because billionaires are almost by definition multi-level players who owe an essential part of their fortune to their ability to circulate their capital between States (shopping forum), when they themselves have not changed their identity – many of them having left their country of origin to become residents, or even American citizens (we are thinking here of the Australian Murdoch, the Hungarian Soros, the Sri Lankan Rajaratnam, etc.) making the United States the real “rear base” of this transnational policy of capital.

Ultimately, the work allows us to escape a “heroic” reading which would make these “committed” billionaires the new key players in international politics capable, through the sole virtue of investments and movements of their capital, of overturning the political table at any time. The book in fact puts the effectiveness of their political investments into perspective, our billionaires rarely meeting in politics with the successes known in the business world. Against a certain idealism of the transnational as a game without borders, the book thus reveals the (unequal) forms of resistance of national political fields to the activism of big fortunes – with the doubtless exception of the weakly structured space of international organizations which appear to offer a more favorable entry point. Especially since this transnational policy of capital will have generated over the last decade a counter-politics marked by companies of legal closure of national political fields.

If these self-defense strategies by which States seek to protect themselves from “foreign” influences are not new, they have experienced a real revival: on the side of illiberal democracies which thus follow the “Russian model” through introduction of legislation allowing government control (or even prohibition) of NGO, think tanks, associations, and other universities financed by foreign funds; but also on the side of liberal democracies under the effect (in particular) of the rapid development of policies to combat international terrorism – for which the billionaire of Sri Lankan origin naturalized American Raj Rajaratnam will have paid the price when his massive support for his community of Tamil origin earned him a series of trials in the United States for alleged support for the Tamil Tigers terrorist group.

Thus setting out in search of proof of influence, the author ultimately encounters many “difficult cases” and uncertainly, and struggles to identify obvious political “successes”. We will be grateful to him for recognizing this, but we will regret the book does not always escape some of the positivist biases of influence studies when they allow themselves to be caught up in the quest – in many respects illusory – of smoking gun or the “specific effect” – and abandon the more general analysis of the framing processes which make it possible to show the effects of delegitimization of other types of actors, local knowledge, and solutions which are at work . Because if our six billionaires do transform the sectors of public policy or the political crises in which they intervene, it is in fact rarely in the way they wanted or imagined. Thus the Bill & Melina Gates Foundation, whose most palpable effect is measured less in the actual content of international health policies than in the dissemination, at the heart of this area of ​​public policy, of a culture of project and result and in the all-out multiplication of “public-private” partnerships – to the detriment of long-term investment policies in the public health infrastructures of the States concerned.

It remains to be understood, beyond this trap question of influence, how the social and political legitimacy of these billionaires is constructed and the conditions in which “the interests and passions of the Gates family” are given a voice in the matter. international public affairs. Liberal globalization has certainly changed the situation in this area with the trivialization of forms of private authority (via regulatory or co-regulation forums), but also through the development of a whole specialized business press which chronicles intuitions, moves and exploits of emblematic figures (the Bezos, Buffett, Gates, Musk, etc.) and anchors the legitimacy of this “entrepreneurial subjectivity” at the heart of international politics. Beyond that, we must also remember that “Bill Gates” or “George Soros” are today so many collective brands and that their trajectory permanently blurs the boundary between the individual and the collective, the physical person and the legal person, private-domestic and business, in a game of variable geometry which goes from the individual to the couple via family holding companies, foundations, the network of companies, etc. Thus, if “Bill Gates” is a “super-actor” on the international scene, it is not simply through the raw effect of the immense capital accumulated at the head of Microsoft; it is also that it relies on a foundation which hires more than 2000 people and that it can count on a network of domestic workers, tax lawyers, asset managers, but also, as mentioned moreover the work, by activists from the world of NGO or former senior executives of international organizations. So many “little hands” of this transnational policy of capital which form a professional field intermediate between the expanding economic and political spheres. This is where all the “political work of capital” is deployed to extend the happy formula of Camille Herlin-Giret which goes well beyond the sole operations of economic profitability; there in fact that we can observe, under the effect of the enlistment of a multiplicity of legal, bureaucratic, managerial, but also political and militant knowledge and know-how, the way in which economic capital works to establish its legal merits, its social utility, its civic-mindedness, even its commitment – ​​in a word, its legitimacy as an actor audience.