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Globalization’s Game of Thrones, Part 2: Managing the Wealth of the World’s Dynasties
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
27 May 2014
In part 1 of this series (“Globalization’s Game of Thrones”) I examined the concept of corporate and financial dynasties holding significant power in the modern world. In this, part 2 of the series, I examine the realities of the ‘wealth management’ industry in being responsible for handling the wealth and investments of the world’s richest families, and the role of a unique institution dedicated to protecting and propagating dynastic wealth: the family office.
A Family Affair
In 2010, Forbes – a major financial publication which publishes an annual list of the world’s richest people – noted that the richest of the richest 400 Americans were members of prominent corporate and financial dynasties, with six of the top ten wealthiest Americans being heirs to prominent fortunes, as opposed to being ‘self-made’ billionaires. What’s more, since the financial crisis began in 2007 and 2008, the fortunes of these dynasties – and the other super-rich who made the Forbes list – had only increased in value.
Corporate America can frequently be seen as the emblem of the ‘self-made’ rich, a representation of a supposedly democratic, capitalist society, where firms are run by “professional managers” who received the right education and developed the appropriate talents to make successful companies. The reality, however, is that roughly a third of the Fortune 500 companies (that is, many of the world’s largest multinational corporations) are in fact “family businesses,” frequently run by family members, and often outperforming the “professionally managed” firms “by a surprisingly large margin,” noted the New York Times.
In other words, in the United States – the beacon of the ‘self-made’ millionaire – a huge percentage of the most successful companies are owned by family dynasties, and most of the richest individuals are heirs to these family dynasties. The picture that begins to emerge better reflects that of an aristocracy, rather than a democracy.
As the New York Times noted in 2010, “the increasing use of so-called dynasty trusts” was undermining the notion that America was a meritocracy (where people ‘rise through the ranks’ of society based upon merit instead of money, access or family lineage). Dynastic trusts allow super-rich families “to provide their heirs with money and property largely free from taxes and immune to the claims of creditors,” not only providing for children, but “for generations in perpetuity – truly creating an American aristocracy.” In laws that predate the formation of the United States as an independent nation, such family trusts were only able to limit the term of the existing trust to roughly 90 years, after which the property and wealth which was consolidated into the trust would be owned directly by the family members. However, in changes that were implemented through Congress in the mid-1980s and in state legislatures across the U.S. in the 1990s, the rules were amended – with the pressure of the banking lobby – to allow family trusts to exist “forever,” a quiet coup for the existing and emerging aristocratic American class.
Thus, the modern dynasty trust was officially sanctioned as a legal entity – a type of private family company – that would be responsible for handling the collective wealth – in money, property, land, art, equities (stocks), bonds (debt), etc. – of the entire family, for generation after generation. The focus is on long-term planning to maintain, protect and increase the wealth of the dynasty, and to hold it ‘in trust’ against the inevitable in-fighting that accompanies dynastic succession and generational differences. This would prevent – in theory – one generation or patriarch from mishandling and squandering the entire family fortune.
The legal structure of a family trust differs greatly from public corporations, in that their focus is not on maximizing short-term quarterly profits for shareholders, but in maintaining multi-generational wealth and prestige. Family trusts are increasingly used to manage the wealth of the world’s super-rich dynasties, alongside private banking institutions and other wealth management and consulting firms. There is an entire industry dedicated to the management of money, wealth and investments for the super-rich, and it is focused largely – and increasingly – on family dynasties.
Of Rockefellers and Rothschilds
One of the world’s most famous family trusts – the “family office” – is that of Rockefeller & Co., now known as Rockefeller Financial. It was founded in 1882 by the oil baron industrialist John D. Rockefeller as the ‘family office’ to manage the Rockefeller family’s investments and wealth. Roughly a century after it was founded, in the 1980s, Rockefeller & Co. began selling its ‘expertise’ to other rich families, and by the year 2008, the trust had roughly $28 billion under management for multiple clients.
When the CEO of Rockefeller & Co., James S. McDonald, shot himself in an alley behind a car dealership in 2009, the family looked for and found a successor in the former Undersecretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Agricultural Affairs for the Bush administration, Rueben Jeffery III, a former partner at Goldman Sachs. Jeffery was responsible for handling the family’s wealth throughout the global financial crisis, and by 2012, the assets under management by Rockefeller Financial had grown to $35 billion.
As of late 2012, Rockefeller & Co. had approximately 298 separate clients, providing them with “financial, trust, and tax advice.” The typical clients for Rockefeller & Co. are families with more than $30 million in investments, and the group charges new clients a minimum annual fee of $100,000. However, the family office has increasingly been attracting clients beyond other family dynasties, including major multinational corporations awash with cash in a world where nation states are flooded in debt. David Harris, the chief investment officer of Rockefeller Financial, explained in a 2012 interview with Barron’s (a magazine for the super-rich), that as the world’s nations were stuck in a debt crisis, triple-A rated multinational conglomerates represented “the new sovereigns” with “unprecedented” amounts of cash to be invested.
And while prominent family trusts have become increasingly attractive for other rich families and institutions to handle their wealth, they have also become attractive investments in and of themselves. One of Europe’s largest banks, the French conglomerate Société Générale (SocGen) purchased a 37% stake in Rockefeller & Co. in June of 2008. However, with the European debt crisis, the bank had to cut a great deal of its assets, and so in 2012 Rueben Jeffery III managed the sale of the 37% stake in the Rockefeller enterprise from SocGen to RIT Capital Partners, the investment arm of the London Rothschild family, one of the world’s most famous financial dynasties.
Barron’s magazine noted that the official union of these two major financial dynasties “should provide some valuable marketing opportunities” in such an uncertain economic and financial landscape, where “new wealth” from around the world would seek “to tap the joint expertise of these experienced families that have managed to keep their heads down and their assets intact over several generations and right through the upheavals of history.”
Early in 2012, the Rothschild family, with various banks and investment entities spread out across multiple European nations and family branches, was making a concerted effort to begin the process of “merging its French and British assets into a single entity,” aiming to secure “long-term control” over the family’s “international banking empire,” reported the Financial Times. The main goal of the merger was “to cement once and for all the family’s grip on the business,” giving the family a 57 percent share in the voting rights, thus protecting the merged entity from hostile takeovers. Thus, as the Rothschild banking dynasty was seeking to consolidate its own family interests across Europe, they were simultaneously looking to expand into the U.S. through the Rockefellers.
Thus, when Lord Jacob Rothschild – who managed the British Rothschild’s family trust, RIT Capital Partners – announced that RIT would be purchasing a 37% stake in Rockefeller Financial Services in May of 2012 for an “undisclosed sum,” it was announced as a “strategic partnership” that would allow the Rothschilds to gain “a much sought-after foothold in the US,” representing a “transatlantic union” that officially unites the two family patriarchs of David Rockefeller and Jacob Rothschild, “whose personal relationship spans five decades.”
At the time of the announcement, David Rockefeller, who was then 96-years-old, commented that, “Lord Rothschild and I have known each other for five decades. The connection between the two families is very strong.” Rockefeller & Co.’s CEO, Rueben Jeffery III, declared that, “there is a shared vision, at the conceptual and strategic level, that marrying the two names with particular products, services, geographic market opportunities, can and will have resonance. These are things we will want to act on as this partnership and overall relationship evolves.” In a world where families hold immense wealth and power, the official institutional union of two of the world’s most famous and recognizable dynastic names makes for an attractive investment for newer dynasties seeking propagation and preservation.
The Family Office
As the Financial Times noted in 2013, the “family office” for the world’s wealthy dynasties, which had “long been cloaked in a shroud of secrecy as rich families have sought to keep their personal fortunes private” has become more popular with “the explosion of wealth in the past few decades and dissatisfaction with the poor performance of portfolios handled by global private banks.” Still, many so-called “single family offices” continue to operate in secrecy, managing the wealth of a single dynasty, but the emergence of “multi-family offices” (MFOs) has become an increasing trend in the world of wealth management, handling the wealth and investments of multiple families.
The world’s largest private banks have specific “family office arms” which are dedicated to managing dynastic wealth, and these banks continue to dominate the overall market. Bloomberg Markets published a list of the top 50 MFOs in 2013, with HSBC Private Wealth Solutions topping the list, advising assets totaling $137.3 billion, with other banks appearing on the top ten list such as BNY Mellon Wealth Management, Pictet and UBS Global Family Office. Despite the fact that the family office arms of the world’s top private banks dominate the list, many of the oldest family offices made the list, such as Bessemer Trust and Rockefeller & Co. A top official at HSBC Private Bank was quoted by the Financial Times as saying: “Very wealthy families are becoming more and more globalized. It’s not just the fact that they are acquiring assets – like real estate – in several jurisdictions, but family members are scattered around the globe and need to be able to transact in those countries.” In effect, we are witnessing the era of the globalization of family dynasties.
Such a view is shared by Carol Pepper, a former financial adviser and portfolio manager at Rockefeller & Co. who established her own consulting firm – Pepper International – in 2001, specializing in advising families with more than $100 million in net worth. In a 2013 interview with Barron’s, Pepper explained that with the globalization of higher education – where the super-rich from around the world send their children to the same prominent academic institutions – as well as with the emergence of associations designed to bring wealthy families together, “the 19th century [is] coming back,” referring to the era of Robber Baron industrialists and co-operation between the major industrial and financial fortunes of the era. Pepper explained that in the present global environment, she was witnessing “a lot more exchange of ideas among wealthy families from different countries than there ever was before,” with such families increasingly investing in and with each other, noting that “inter-family transactions” had increased by 60% in the previous two years.
The globalization of family dynasties and the ‘return’ to the 19th century is an institutional phenomenon, facilitated by elite universities, business and family associations, international organizations, conferences and other organizations. Thus, regardless of geographic location, the world’s wealthiest families tend to send their children to one of a list of relatively few elite universities, such as Wharton, Harvard or the London School of Economics. At these and similar schools, noted Carol Pepper, the future heirs of family fortunes attain “both the know-how and the contacts for forging overseas collaborations between family businesses.”
So-called ‘non-profit’ associations like the International Family Office Association, the Family Business Network, and ESAFON, among others, are institutional representations of “intentional efforts by rich clans to rub shoulders with one another.” Instead of a rich family in one region hiring an outside firm to introduce them to a new market, they simply are able to reach out directly to the wealthy families within that market, and, as Pepper explained, their interests will be increasingly aligned and “hopefully you’ll all make money together.”
Instead of relying on banks as intermediaries between markets, rich families with more than $47 million to invest are pooling their wealth into the multi-family offices (MFOs). The Financial Times explained that such wealthy families were “crying out for something financial institutions have singularly failed to provide: a one-stop shop to manage both their business and personal interests.” Further, as banks have been coming under increased scrutiny since the financial crisis, “there is still a clandestine nature to the family-office world that will continue to attract clients.” Explaining this, the Financial Times appropriately quoted advice by the character Don Corleone from The Godfather, when he told his son: “Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking.”
As the Wall Street Journal noted, family offices “are private firms that manage just about everything for the wealthiest families: tax planning, investment management, estate planning, philanthropy, art and wine collections – even the family vacation compound.” As such, regardless of where many family fortunes are made, the family office has come to represent the central institution of modern dynasties. And the growth of multi-family offices has been astounding, with the number increasing by 33% between 2008 and 2013, with more than 4,000 in the United States alone, the country with the highest number of wealthy families and individuals, including 5,000 households that have more than $100 million in assets. The Wall Street Journal noted: “You don’t have to be a Rockefeller to join a family office.” However, it does help to have hundreds of millions of dollars.
In 2012, the list of the largest multi-family offices were largely associated with major banks, including HSBC, BNY Mellon, UBS, Wells Fargo and Bank of America, but Rockefeller Financial maintained a prominent position as the 11th largest multi-family office (according to assets under advisement and number of families being served). And beyond the specific arm of the ‘multi-family office’ to the list of the top wealth management groups as a whole, private bank branches of some of the world’s most recognizable bank names dominated the list: Bank of America Global Wealth & Investment Management, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, JPMorgan, Wells Fargo & Company, UBS Wealth Management, Fidelity, and Goldman Sachs, among others. However, after the top 19 wealth management companies in the world – all of which were arms of major global banking and financial services conglomerates – came number twenty on the list: Rockefeller Financial.
Indeed, things have never been better for the super-rich. A 2012 poll of 1,000 wealthy Americans by the Merrill Lynch Affluent Insights Survey revealed that 58% of respondents felt more financially secure in 2012 than they did the previous year. In 2013, U.S. Trust, the private banking arm of Bank of America, released a survey of 711 individuals with more than $3 million in investable assets, of whom 88% reported that they were more financially secure today than they were before the financial crisis in 2007. Further, the main goal for the super-rich in 2013 was reported to be “asset appreciation” as opposed to “extreme caution”, as the survey reported for 2012.
In 2013, Bloomberg Markets Magazine reported that the number of wealthy people in the world with more than $1 million in investable assets had increased by 9.2% over 2012, reaching a new record of 12 million individuals, and the assets by the rich increased by roughly 10%, reaching a combined total of roughly $46.2 trillion. With this growth in extreme wealth, the wealth management business is itself becoming a major growth industry, with independent firms competing against the big banks in a race to manage the spoils of the world’s super-rich.
And the world’s big banks want to get more of this investable wealth. For example, Goldman Sachs has boosted its private wealth management services. The number of partners at the bank working in asset management in 2010 represented 4.5% of the bank’s total partners, a number which grew to 12% by 2012. Tucker York, the head of private wealth management in the U.S. for Goldman Sachs, noted: “This is a relationship business, and long-term relationships matter… The focus for us is to have the right quality and caliber of people come into the business and stay in the business for a long, long time.”
The managing director and chief investment officer of Goldman Sachs’ private wealth management arm, Mossavar-Rahmani, told Barron’s in 2012: “This is the time to be a long-term investor… There are very few market participants in today’s environment who can truly be long-term investors. Who can really afford to be a long-term investor? The ultra-high-end client is the only one we could think of, because they generally have more money than their spending needs.” In addition, he noted, “their assets are multigenerational,” and, what’s more, “they are not accountable to anyone.”
In a world of immense inequality, with the super-rich controlling more wealth than the rest of humanity combined, the wealth management industry – and within it, the ‘family office’ – have become growth industries and increasingly important institutions. The whole process of globalization has facilitated not only the internationalization of financial markets, multinational corporations and the economies they dominate, but it has in turn facilitated the globalization of family dynasties themselves, whose wealth is largely based on control over corporate and financial assets and institutions.
In globalization’s ‘Game of Thrones’, the world’s super-rich families compete and cooperate for control not simply over nations, but entire regions and the world as a whole. As dynasties seek perpetuation, most people on this planet are concerned with survival. Whoever wins this ‘Game of Thrones,’ the people lose.
The research for this series has been undertaken as part of The People’s Book Project. For this – and similar – research to continue, please consider making a donation today:
Andrew Gavin Marshall is a researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, chair of the Geopolitics Division of The Hampton Institute, research director for Occupy.com’s Global Power Project and the World of Resistance (WoR) Report, and hosts a weekly podcast show with BoilingFrogsPost.
Globalization’s ‘Game of Thrones’, Part 1: Dynastic Power in the Modern World
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
7 May 2014
Think of any period in human history when empires and imperialism were common features of society, whether from ancient Egypt, Rome, China, to the Ottomans and the rise of the European and Japanese empires. There is an institution that – with few exceptions – was prevalent across most imperial societies: the family dynasty.
In a world dominated by institutions – organized hierarchically and embedded with their own functions and ideologies – the ‘family unit’ is very often the first and most important institution in the development of individuals. For the rich and powerful, the family unit has been the principal institution through which power is accumulated, preserved and propagated, precisely because the interest is multi-generational, requiring long-term planning and strategy.
In powerful states and empires, families have been essential in the process of constructing and governing the major institutions within those societies, as well as in the direct control of the imperial or state structure itself. Whether emperors, kings, queens or sultans, family dynasties have very often exerted direct political control of society. This has been the case for much of human history, at least so long as empires and states have been consistent features. And yet, in the modern era, we imagine our societies to be free of dynastic rule – an archaic feature of a world long past, not consistent with the ideals and functions of democracy, capitalism or modernity. We might imagine this to be true, but we would, in fact, be wrong.
Dynastic power not only remains, but it evolves and adapts, and in the present world of ‘globalization’ – with the growth of the modern nation-states, with the development of state capitalist societies, the banking and financial systems, the monetary-central banking system, industrialization and the multinational corporation – in a world largely dominated by a single state, the United States, acting as the international imperial arbiter on behalf of powerful corporate and financial interests, dynastic power remains a central institution in the global system.
There are, however, notable differences from past era of imperial and royal families. Today, most – but certainly not all – dynasties do not hold formal or direct political authority. The world’s most economically and politically powerful countries are no longer governed by kings and queens or emperors. Instead, modern dynastic power is largely a development that emerged with the decline in the authority of monarchs, and with the rise in parliamentary democracy and capitalism.
As the political and economic spheres began to be opened up, new structures emerged to quickly centralize power within those spheres. As kings and queens handed over the ultimate authority to issue coin to other institutions, merchants and financiers stepped in to increase their influence over the new institutions of a changing world order. Out of these monumental social transformations came new dynasties, embedded within the financial, industrial and corporate oligarchies. Their power was not in direct control of the political apparatus, but in their concentration of control over the financial, economic and industrial spheres. With that power, inevitably, came both the desire and the ability to influence and pressure the political sphere.
Today, it is the industrial, financial and corporate dynasties that have risen to unparalleled positions of authority in the age of globalization. And yet, while some of their names ring familiar to the ears of many, they are frequently thought of as relics of past centuries rather than titans of today, or their names are altogether unfamiliar, as is their positions and influence within our societies. We see power – typically – in terms of those who hold political office: prime ministers and presidents who we elect, as is consistent with our belief that we live in democracies. We see competing factions of political parties vying for office, with us – the people – as the ultimate arbiters of who gets to hold power. The influence of globalization’s dynasties remains unseen, or, misunderstood.
When one hears the concept of relatively few families exerting unparalleled influence over the modern world, the immediate reaction or insinuation is that of a ‘conspiracy theory’. Images of smoke-filled back rooms and mentions of ‘thirteen families’ sitting around a table deciding world events permeate the perceptions of those who question or are confronted with the question of the role of powerful families in the modern world. And yet, the concept of dynastic rule – of families competing, cooperating, and indeed, conspiring with and against each other for control and domination – are prevalent and popular within our culture.
A perfect example of this is with the immense popularity of both the books and the television show, ‘Game of Thrones.’ Set in a mythical world, yet largely based upon the historical rivalries of the ‘War of the Roses’, we witness the characters evolve and events unfold as several families and dynasties battle each other, conspire, compete and cooperate for control of the known world. They are frequently ruthless, cunning and deceitful, often surrounded by ‘yes men’ or the poison-tongued advisers who rose to their positions not by virtue of birth and name, but by their individual capacities for manipulation and cunning. It is a world in perpetual war, engrossing poverty, with the privileged few sending the poor to fight their battles for them, to die and suffer while the rich few propagate and prosper. With no lack of conspiracies, the greatest threat to individual members of dynasties typically comes from their own or comparatively powerful families. Issues of patriarchy, incest, blood-lust, and secession – to the head of the family or the head of the throne – are consistent throughout.
Indeed, the world of ‘Game of Thrones’ – so popular in our culture – is not so far from the reality of our culture, itself. In the world of globalization, families cooperate, compete, and perhaps even conspire against and with each other or themselves. They keep the politics of dynastic power from being understood or contemplated by the masses. We are distracted with sports, entertainment, ‘royal weddings’, a fear of foreigners and terrorism, and are blinded and manipulated by a deeply embedded propaganda system. Our celebrity culture celebrates banality and irrelevance: we tune in to the latest Kim Kar-crash-ian disaster of a human being that plasters the tabloids, while we tune out to the rivalries and repercussions of ‘Globalization’s Game of Thrones’.
While modern dynasties share many characteristics of past ruling families, they have their major distinctions, largely derived from the fact that most of them do not hold formal political or absolute authority. Past dynasties typically held absolute authority over their local regions, states or kingdoms. That type of authority does not exist at the major state, regional or global levels today, with few exceptions, such as the ruling monarchs of the Gulf Arab dictatorships. Yet, while the mechanism of authority is less centralized or formalized in the modern world, the scope and reach of authority – or influence – has expanded exponentially. In short, while in past eras, a single family may have exerted absolute authority over a comparably small region or empire, today, the indirect influence of a dynastic family may reach across the globe, though it remains far from absolute.
Thus, we should not mistake modern dynasties as replications of previous ruling families. They are adaptations to the modern era. With the emergence and prevalence of globalization, multinational corporations, banks, financial markets, philanthropic foundations, think tanks, media conglomerates, educational institutions, public relations and the advertising industries, financial and industrial oligarchs and dynasties have come to be integrated with the nation-state structure. Families that have established modern dynasties typically rose to prominence through their concentration of power and wealth in financial, industrial and corporate spheres. From these positions, political power and influence became a necessity, or else the loss of economic power would be an inevitability.
Such dynasties would frequently establish a ‘family office’ – a private corporate entity – which would handle all of the investments, interests and finances of a dynasty; they would create new universities which would focus on producing knowledge and intellectuals capable of managing changes within and protecting the social order, instead of intellectual talents or pursuits being channeled into areas that challenge the prevailing order. Dynastic families establish ‘philanthropic foundations’ to serve a dual purpose of justifying their wealth and influence (by being perceived as ‘giving back’), but which, in actuality, provide concentrations of wealth managed for the purpose of ‘strategic giving’: to undertake social engineering projects with an ultimate objective of maintaining social control. While appearing to be ‘charitable’ institutions, the major foundations are predominantly interested in the process of long-term social engineering. Notably among such foundations are the Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Ford Foundation, Open Society Institute, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among many others.
Not unrelated – as they are frequently established and funded by foundations – think tanks are created with the intent to bring elite interests together from a wide array of institutions: financial, industrial, corporate, academic/intellectual, media, cultural, foreign policy and political spheres. In think tanks, top officials from these sectors are gathered in a single institution where they work together to plan strategies for economic and foreign policies, for establishing consensus between elites, and to serve as training and recruitment grounds for officials to enter the political and foreign policy establishment, where they are capable of enacting the very policies developed within the think tanks. Notable think tanks with immense influence – specifically in the United States – include the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Larger, international think tanks have been increasingly common during the era of globalization, uniting respective elites from across the powerful western industrial states, instead of simply the elites within each respective state. Notable among these institutions are the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group and the World Economic Forum.
The prevalence of financial, industrial and corporate dynasties within these institutions has ensured that such families have significant political influence, and have – moreover – played pivotal roles in the construction and evolution of our modern state-capitalist society. Not coincidentally, with the preservation and propagation of modern dynastic power has come the preservation and propagation of modern imperialism, no longer established as a formal colonial system of control. Instead, it is represented as a complex inter-dependency and interaction of institutions and ideologies that manifest as a system of globalized ‘informal imperialism’, with the United States at the center.
Some of the names of these dynasties are better known than others, like Rothschild and Rockefeller, while others are better known within their own countries or barely known at all, like Agnelli (in Italy), Wallenberg (in Sweden) and Desmarais (in Canada). Each family dynasty has their own unique history, with power concentrated in particular companies or family offices. Many, if not most, of these families also have significant connections with each other, acting as joint shareholders in various companies, sitting on the same boards and mingling in the same social circles. They cooperate and they compete with each other for influence in Globalization’s ‘Game of Thrones’.
This series aims to bring to light some of the stories, players and structures of the world’s dominant dynasties. The research included in this series has been undertaken through The People’s Book Project, a crowd-funded initiative to produce a series of books examining the ideas, institutions and individuals of power, as well as the methods and movements of resistance in the modern world.
For this research to continue, the People’s Book Project needs your support. Please consider donating today, and keep an eye out for future installments of the series, ‘Globalization’s Game of Thrones’.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is a 27-year old researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, chair of the Geopolitics Division of The Hampton Institute, research director for Occupy.com’s Global Power Project and the World of Resistance (WoR) Report, and hosts a weekly podcast show with BoilingFrogsPost.
A Teaser to ‘The Empire of Poverty’: The First Volume of The People’s Book Project
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
The following is a little teaser to some of the ideas, approach and perspective being pursued through the research and writing of the first volume of The People’s Book Project, ‘The Empire of Poverty.’ Please consider donating to the Project to help these efforts come to fruition.
It’s important to try to understand the global economic and financial system – the banks, corporations, central banks, economic policies (and effects) of governments, trade agreements, the creation and value of currencies, the function of the oft-heard ‘markets’ – as daunting as the task may seem. One might think that they need a degree in Economics in order to understand the complexities of the global economy, to comprehend the correct choices and policies which achieve the desired results. One might think that this is true, but it isn’t. The truth is that if most economists understood the global economy, and knew the ‘correct’ choices to make, we wouldn’t be where we currently are.
Economics – both theory and practice – is an illusion. There are no concrete rules on which to base economic thought; there is no ‘gravity’ to its physics. Economics is not science, it’s sophistry; the sleight of hand, the quick and slick tongue, the wave of the wand, the theatrics of the stage set for all to see, and the effects – as destructive as they may be to the real world and all life within it – are largely hidden from view; the illusion keeps the population enraptured in awe, aspiration, and fear.
This is not to say that there cannot be anything real produced or given growth by what we call ‘economics’: there are of course exchanges made, resources used, products created, lives benefitted, and entire societies and peoples changed. The effects are very real. However, they have a disproportionately destructive, oppressive, and dehumanizing effect upon the vast majority of humanity: they bestow upon a tiny fraction unparalleled power, and thus, dehumanization in another form; while creating a comparably minimal buffer of generally satiated and malleable middle classes, educated well-enough to work and survive the horror show that is the global economic order, but consumed by a culture lacking in substance and meaning, and thus, left morally, psychologically, and intellectually lobotomized, physically paralyzed, and thus, once again, dehumanized.
So our global economic order has the effect of generally dehumanizing all who are subject to its whims and whammies; which is to say, almost everyone, everywhere. Those peoples and societies that are not integrated into the global economy tend to be bombed, invaded, overthrown or droned. Those who remain are doomed to slow death: one in seven people on earth live in urban slums – more than the combined populations of Canada, the United States, and the European Union – while the majority of humanity lives in deep poverty, in hunger, and malnutrition; with 18 million people being killed from poverty-related causes every year, including over 9 million children. Every year.
During the Holocaust, approximately six million Jews were killed. Take that number, add 50% to make 9 million, and just think: this is how many children die every year from poverty. Every year a new Holocaust.
These deaths are preventable. Truly. It has been estimated that less than the yearly Pentagon budget would lift the poorest 3 billion people of the world out of extreme poverty. In fact, in the twenty years following the end of the Cold War in 1991, there were roughly 360 million preventable deaths caused by poverty-related issues, more than the combined deaths of all of the wars of the 20th century.
But this is not our priority. Our priority is that banks and corporations make as much profits as possible, because this – by some unknown and unseen magic – will (it is said) benefit everyone else. It is propagated and believed that this system, as it exists, or even with the proper tinkering and toiling, can represent the totality of life and being on this world; to be humanizing, and to represent ‘human nature’ at its best. But if this system were ‘human nature,’ why would it be so dehumanizing? How many organisms grow by destroying that which their existence depends upon? Parasites, cancers and various diseases can kill the host before transferring to another.
We have no other host to go to. Those who sit atop the global structure know this, which is why they express such an interest in finding new planets to escape to (and presumably, plunder and destroy). The billionaires have given up pretending to care for the world’s billions of people suffering, which is why they are looking to space travel, mining asteroids, and searching for hospitable environments elsewhere. Their long-term ‘exit strategy’ is to abandon ship, not to change the direction we currently traverse.
Are we – as a species – a cancer upon the earth? Looking at the big picture, it may often seem that way. But it is in the small moments, the single acts, exchanged emotions, interacting individuals, in the every day life – those moments of joy, love, wonder – in which we find our own personal meaning, in which we discover that humanity – and human nature – can be so much more than destructive, petty, and pestilent behaviour. We are told we are a society of ‘individuals’ – that we are free, democratic and equal. If that were the case: why are we so isolated? We are individuals, yes, in the physical sense: but we are disconnected from the collective, separated from the species as a whole.
We think and act individually, but do so ignorantly, and arrogantly. Our thoughts and feelings are collected and collated by our commanding culture of irrelevance. The immense gift of a human mind – with all of its possibilities and capabilities, both known and unknown – is largely squandered on pop culture, sports, celebrities, consumer items and entertainment. So long as we remain distracted by the ‘celebration of irrelevance’, we are lobotomized of our meaning.
Is this how you see yourself as an individual? As the world you live in? It’s not an appealing thought. So why, then, do we live in a world in which as individuals we may act morally, purposefully, passionately, and proudly; though as a collective species, we are petty, parasitic, power-mad, pathological, and pretty much evil?
Is it ‘human nature’ that our personal values and priorities are not reflected in the collective – institutionalized – expression of humanity? Or, is it that the way in which our society is constructed, the institutions and ideologies, the policies, programs, priorities and effects of the way in which our world is ordered and altered, is inherently counter to ‘human nature’? In other words: is human nature inherently self-destructive; or, is our constructed human ‘society’ (our global social, political and economic order) inherently destructive to human nature? Does human nature pervert the effects we have upon the world, or do the structures of world order – and power – pervert human nature?
It is this vast disconnect between our personal values and the form they take at the global – collective – level of the species, which is ultimately so dehumanizing. Because power is centralized at the top, and for such a tiny fraction of the species – so much so that there has never been a more unequal and vast ‘Empire of Poverty’ in all of human history, the ‘great inequality’ is not of wealth, but of power.
Wealth is an illusion: a manufactured means to power, a collective delusion. Power is central to human nature. Every person needs power: they need autonomy over their own lives, thoughts, feelings, and decisions. It is central to maturity, it is central to leaving adolescence and becoming an adult, and it is central to finding a sense of self-worth. Understanding oneself is to empower oneself. Power is about possibility, personal fulfillment, passion and purpose. It has individual and social representations. It can be seen – or not – in your own life, but also in the world around us.
A pre-requisite for power is freedom. The process of achieving freedom is, itself, empowering. Once (and if) achieved, it is of immense responsibility to use your new power of freedom wisely, for the effects that it may have upon others and the rest of the world are endless. Power is freedom, quite simply, because slavery is the opposite of both freedom and power: it is the most un-free and the most disempowering personal position to be in.
Freedom is power; power is freedom. If we were actually free, we would have significantly more power. But we don’t. We barely have any control over our own individual lives, let alone the world around us. We leave all that to the others, to those with the proper degrees, the ‘expertise,’ the politicians, the pundits, the ‘right’ people… because they’ve obviously done such a great job of it so far. We remain – as a species, and very often as individuals – neutered from the necessities of individual empowerment, subjected instead to the very-often-arbitrary abuses of power over others.
So if we are not free, what are we? Certainly, we are not slaves, for we have no shackles, bear the brunt of no whips, serve no visible masters. We are, perhaps, slaves of another kind. We are financially, reflexively, intellectually, emotionally and hopelessly and very often spiritually enslaved to the system, as it exists. We are slaves to money. We serve the masters of money, with our time, with our labour and efforts, with our interactions, exchanges, interests, intelligence and aspirations. We are slaves to money.
Our society is built and sustained upon it; and our species is being driven to extinction because of it. The cause and effect of money – or more aptly, debt – slavery, is the distribution of power among the species: too few have too much, and too many have too little. This imbalance of power within the species is leading to our self-destruction, our inevitable extinction if we continue along this path.
Money is both the means and very often – the reason – for continuing down this path, for maintaining this imbalance. While very few have all the money, everyone – and everywhere else – has all the debt. This is not the wondrous ‘free market’ capitalist utopia which is incessantly babbled about, but the very real global feudal dystopia, both cause and effect of the power imbalance and money-system. In feudalism, there is no freedom, only serfdom.
Welcome to our global economic order, serf!
Welcome to the Empire of Poverty.
But it’s not hopeless. The truth is both painful, but also full of possibilities. The truth is that we do have the ability to understand the world we live in, to comprehend our global economic order. We don’t need a degree; we just need honesty.
The illusion that is our economic system is built not upon technical knowledge, but rather, technical language, a highly political language, “designed to make lies sound truthful, murder respectable, and to give a feeling of solidity to pure wind,” as George Orwell defined the term. Our inability to communicate honesty, and thus effectively, about our economic – and indeed, political and social – system is an essential mechanism in maintaining that system.
To speak and ‘understand’ this language, at least at a superficial level, usually does require some ‘education’: economists must be trained, so too must political and other social scientists. The artificial separations in their knowledge – (as in, the notion that the economic world exists separate from the political and social world, and thus, must be studied separately) ensures that none who receive a ‘proper education’ achieve a profound understanding of the world. Some may, but they are few and far between, and usually weeded out or co-opted.
Such a ‘proper education’ will allow one to gain enough basic knowledge related to the sector of society in which they aim to explore and advance, and they are given just enough knowledge to do so, but not enough to honestly look at – let alone have the capacity to communicate – the reality of how our global political, social and economic order functions and evolves. They may see problems, make recommendations, propose policies, and they may even do some good, but ultimately – as we still remain on the path toward extinction – they have not, and cannot – do enough.
Few possibilities – few ‘solutions’ – or opportunities, are communicated to the populations that are effected under and by these societies, and by the decisions the few at the top make. People are generally given a small set of options from which to choose, like guessing what’s behind door number one or two, when both are ultimately terrible, and ineffectual (in a positive sense). We put ‘faith’ – however empty – into the hands of politicians, we consume the crap spewed in the media, or we lose ourselves in the vast vacancy that is the ‘substance’ of our culture; a culture of mythology, lies, fantasy, persuasion, punishment, entertainment and manipulation.
Our hope is first in honesty. We can – and must – look honestly at the world for what it is, not what we want or imagine it to be, but what it is. Then, we can – and must – communicate this message, and to do so honestly and directly. This is a human reality, and it must become a part of a collective human knowledge, a shift in understanding, and thus, a change in direction; away from the current-inevitably of extinction, and toward survival. What comes after is for future generations to determine. For now, we must aim to simply survive.
Our goal must first be to begin charting a new path toward survival; this must be the duty of our present living and younger generations, as challenging, demanding and terrifying a responsibility that may be, it is either that, or extinction. And this is not a matter of hundreds or thousands of years away; it could be as soon as decades. If you – like me – are between 18 and 45 – the coming few decades of the world in which you currently live and hope to survive will become increasingly dreadful, destructive, oppressive, and disempowering. We cannot afford to continue kicking the can down the road, delaying – and exacerbating – the inevitable.
There is always hope, not in myths and fantasy, but hidden in reality. In our actions, ideas, in us – as individuals – connecting, interacting, sharing, working and creating together, as collectives, as part of a larger human organism; beginning to act as if we don’t want to self-destruct as a species, creating a new society – a new order – to make the current one obsolete. This is our great challenge. How do we navigate through living within the present existing order, while simultaneously seeking to create a new and alternative order? Moreover, how do we achieve this if it takes nearly all our effort, time and energy to simply survive the present order? To put it as crudely (and honestly) as possible: how the fuck are we supposed to change the world?!
I don’t know the answers. But I think that the best way to get them is to ask honest questions, seek an honest understanding, and to communicate honestly – about ourselves and the world – personally, and globally. This book is my attempt to understand and speak honestly about the world, not to speak in a language that only economists and political scientists or other so-called ‘experts’ can understand, but to speak plainly and directly. This will require me to dedicate some focus in attempting to translate political language into English. I don’t have a degree, and you won’t need one to read this, or to understand it.
The hope, then, that I hold for this book – and the wider book project of which it is apart – is that it presents an accessible and usable collection of knowledge. It is not the book that asks every question, or has ever answer (no books do!), but it is an attempt at taking a different approach to asking and seeking answers to some rather important questions about our world: what is the true nature of our society? How did we get here? Where are we going? Why? And, what can we do to change it?
This is but an introduction to our world, by no means comprehensive or conclusive, simply accessible, honest, and (hopefully) useful.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is a 26-year old researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, chair of the Geopolitics Division of The Hampton Institute, research director for Occupy.com’s Global Power Project and the World of Resistance (WoR) Report, and hosts a weekly podcast show with BoilingFrogsPost.
 Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (Verso: London, 2007), pages 151-173.
 Thomas Pogge, “Keynote Address: Poverty, Climate Change, and Overpopulation,” Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law (Vol. 38, 2010), pages 526-534.
 Dan Vergano, “Billionaires back ambitious space projects,” USA Today, 13 May 2012:
The Debtor’s War: A Modern Greek Tragedy
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
Early on Thursday, 7 November 2013, Greek riot police stormed the offices of Greece’s main public broadcaster, which had been under a five-month occupation by workers who opposed the government’s decision to shutdown the broadcaster, firing thousands and destroying a major cultural institution. The broadcast seems to have come to an end.
The long and painful Greek tragedy continues, where society and culture are gutted, people impoverished, driven into a deep depression, with growing political and social conflicts, the rise of fascism, detention camps filled with immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, trying to escape the dictators we arm, or the wars we support, with suicide rates spiking, health and well-being deteriorate, services and support vanish, and all the people are left to be punished, humiliated, oppressed and destroyed… These are called “solutions” to an economic crisis, on the road to “economic recovery”… think about that for a moment.
Why is this done? Because some of the world’s largest banks demand it. The same banks that created the global financial crisis, and the European debt crisis, and the global food crisis (which drives tens of millions more people into hunger, and makes the banks richer in the process)., and which launder hundreds of billions of dollars in drug money, profit from arms sales, war and terror. Those banks want the people of Greece (and Spain, and Italy, Portugal, and Ireland, and everywhere, always, across the world) to pay the interest they feel they are owed.
Let me put this simply: a computer screen somewhere, at some big bank, says that some country owes that bank a certain amount of money, and thus, the people of that country must suffer and even die, so that the government can afford to pay back the bank. That’s what government’s are for, right? To serve banks… right?
Greece needs to pay the bank, because the bank and all the bank’s friends (what we call “financial markets”) have decided to punish the country of Greece by betting against the ability of the country to repay its debts, to crash its credit rating, making its ability to borrow and spend increasingly expensive and impossible. Now Greece is basically broke. Greece needs money, so it turns to the EU, the European Central Bank, and the IMF for “assistance.”
They demand that Greece – in return for the loan(s) – impoverish its population, cut all social services and health care, education, anything of benefit to the population – destroy it! – because it’s “too costly.” These are called “austerity measures.” Then, ensure that the newly-impoverished population has all their ‘benefits’ withdrawn, which were promised to them through the ‘social contract’ between the population and the government (essentially, a social agreement between people and the state which legitimizes the state’s ability to rule over them). These things must be destroyed. So things like pensions, social security, labour rights and regulations, protections and safety, industries, resources, services and anything that again benefits the population, must be dismantled and sold for cheap to foreign banks and corporations. All must be dismantled to ensure that the newly-impoverished population and country can be effectively and efficiently exploited by cosmopolitical corporations. These are called “structural reforms,” presumably because they ‘reform’ the very structure of society.
Then, with the combination of impoverishment and exploitation, comes the saintly glow of the all-encompassing human desire and civilizational drive – our goal and purpose as a species on this planet, what our societies are organized by and for – the highest stage of humanity: “economic growth.” Who wouldn’t want “growth”? Well, unless we’re talking about something like a wart, rash, infection, inflammation, or a tumour, everyone wants “growth”, right? Even if it’s at the expense of entire societies and populations of actual individual and living human beings, like any single one of us. Just so long as they suffer for “growth,” all will be well and happy.
So what does “growth” mean? It means that the banks and corporations – which worked with government agencies and officials in creating the global economic and financial crises in the first place – now have the ability to reap the benefits of destruction: massive profits, and growing global power. Large corporations have more money than most countries on earth. Their power is protected by the state, their influence unquestioned, their domination of the world’s resources, materials, culture and society is rapidly advancing, and they are – institutionally and ideologically – totalitarian. So what’s not to love, really?
They want it all. Profit and power. Our world is dominated and being re-shaped by a tiny global financial, corporate, political and intellectual elite. And all must suffer so that they can have what anyone in their position would want to have: more, they want it all. And they want you to just shut up and let them take it all. If you have a problem with that, well, that’s what riot police, prisons, and fascism are for.
This is why Greece must suffer. This is why we hear the unholy trinity economic mantra of: “austerity,” “structural reform,” and “economic growth.” The modern Greek Tragedy of ‘The Debtor’s War’ is driven by the tyrannical trio known as the ‘Troika': the European Commission (of unelected, unaccountable supranational elite technocrats who serve the interests of global corporate and financial power), the European Central Bank (of unelected technocrats and economists who serve the interests of “financial markets” and the big banks), and the IMF (of unelected technocrats and economists who serve global financial and corporate interests). This institutional ‘Troika’ (the EC, ECB, and IMF) demanded the implementation of the ideological ‘Troika': austerity, structural reform, and economic growth.
Together, institutionally and ideologically, they wreak havoc upon humanity.
Welcome to the most completely INSANE point in human history; the all-or-nothing. Welcome to reality.
Now please, kindly help change it.