2019-12-03: Review of Peter Phillips' Global Giants, by Max Forte

Max Forte has provided a valuable review of a 2018 book by Peter Phillips, Giants: The Global Power Elite. Phillips means to update the classic work of C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite, transposed from the USA to the global stage. Forte gives a qualified approval for the work, which raises important questions even if doesn't satistactorily answer them:

Giants: The Global Power Elite, by Peter M. Phillips, Professor of Political Sociology at Sonoma State University, opens with a stated intention of following in the tradition C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite. This book is clearly meant to be a contemporary update and expansion of Mills' work, such that the power elite now becomes the global power elite (GPE) in Phillips' volume—and central to the idea of a global power elite is the transnational capitalist class that was at the core of the theorization of Leslie Sklair. One of the most important features of this book, in my view, is that it overcomes the unproductive dichotomy that continues to silently inform many academic and political debates on this question: is the contemporary world order one dominated by US imperialism or transnational capital? Phillips' answer is productive (even if I do not entirely agree): transnational capital has acquired US power and uses the power of the US state to further its aims, protect its interests, and enforce its agenda. Where I differ, the difference is a relatively slight matter of emphasis: Phillips' model is largely correct, but it is also important to remember that the wealthiest, most numerous, and most powerful membership of the transnational capitalist class is in fact American. [italics original]

The question of whether it is US imperialism or transnational capital which dominates is a central theme of the review:

Is it in fact transnational capital of a global power elite that has dominated globalization, that we are seeing here? Or would it be more accurately reflective of reality to speak of an American Power Elite that dominates the world's circuits of wealth creation and concentration? The answer has enormous import for how we think about globalization vs. American imperialism as the best mode of describing contemporary reality. . . . [T]he inability to explain why transnational capitalists need states is one of the most serious flaws in explanations that claim states have been diminished while transnational capitalists have real power. If they had real power, they would not need states. [italics original]

Forte finds the deprecation of the role of states unconvincing, and I share his skepticism. He cites the multiplicity of transnational institutions, themselves seemingly designed to rein in the power of states. The role of the US dollar as global reserve currency does not figure in Forte's review, but it remains the most crucial resource for the maintenence of US imperialism and there is no global substitute in sight (despite the intriguing remarks of UK central banker Mark Carney).

I look forward to comparison with Bill Domhoff's Who Rules America?, which I found exceedingly useful. Regarding the question of is the contemporary world order one dominated by US imperialism or transnational capital? please consider the importance of the US dollar as global reserve currency and the privileges that entails. Dollar hegemony forms one of the key pillars of US imperialism and tends to support the interpretation that US imperialism is the more useful frame. Especially since the US empire declines to acknowledge itself; the use of concepts such as transnational capital serves in part to obfuscate US imperialism.

Moreover, the deprecation of states as players is belied by the importance of the geopolitical opponents of US imperialism, especially Iran, China, and Russia. China has certainly indicated its economic ambitions with the formation of the Belt and Road Initiative. But the failure to date of China to break the chains of dollar dependency circumscribes my expections of its leadership of a new world order, at least in the near term. However, Russia's deployment of weapons capable of neutralizing (and potentially humiliating) the US military, as well as the pioneering the use of payment systems that operate outside the purview of the dollar-based system, may in fact play an equal or greater role in the dismantling of the US imperium. The pending demise of the role of the state in global affairs has been somewhat exaggerated.

Despite these reservations, the book looks like a valuable reference, including hundreds of brief profiles of key individuals in directorship roles of global financial giants and non-governmental organizations. I have added it to my list of reading desiderata. Thanks, Max!