Unlike other wealthy elites what have, for example, inherited wealth (aristocrats, great-grand-children of 19th and 20th-century robber barons, etc.) and elites that simply stole money (mafia) and obtained it semi-legally (Russian oligarchs), the corporate elite is defined by the ownership of corporations or equities, securities, stocks and share in them. In some cases, they are idle rentiers. In other cases, they are top managers and CEO of large corporations.
In the year 2020, CEOs like Chad Richison of “Paycom” received – not necessarily “earned” – $211 million or $18 million per month – about $600,000 for every day of the year, including when on holidays, on personal leave, etc.; Amir Dan Rubin of “1Life Healthcare” got $199 million; John Legere of “T-Mobile” cashed in a cool $137 million, GE’s Larry Culp ($73 million); and Hilton’s Chris Nassetta got $56 million which is about $1 million every week. The USA’s Bureau of Labor Statistics said on 16th April 2021, “Median weekly earnings of full-time workers were $989”.
To secure their wealth, the corporate elite are, in some countries, forced to deal with democracy, elections and democratic institutions. In these countries, the corporate elite have developed distinct pro-corporate policies and strategies, set up lobbying organizations, engineered campaign financing, and introduced governmental structures that serve their interest. These structures and institutions (e.g. IMF, world bank, Davos, WTO, NAFTA, EU, etc.) have allowed the corporate elite to dominate civil societies as well as the international realm not just during the 20th century but they are set to do so well into the 21st century.
The corporate elite dominate by establishing organizational structures, rules and customs as well as making society believe that they are in control of millions of jobs. The corporate elite have also been highly successful in swaying government officials to adhere to their policy priorities even though some politicians do not need much swaying as they are part of the corporate elite – e.g. Donald Trump. Simultaneously, the $2.4bn-man Trump constantly announced that he is not part of the elite.
Being in command, having power over others and being dominant – what German sociologist Max Weber calls having Herrschaft – allows the corporate elite to continue a characteristically luxurious lifestyle. Their way of life is usually expressed by owning and using private jets – 747-8i – Caribbean islands, yachts, etc. Self-evidently, the corporate elite are saturated with feelings of individual superiority.
Wealth, lifestyle, political power and the status of being “the” elite constantly reinforce the corporate elite’s own faith in dominating those of lesser standing – us. In order to sustain all this, the corporate elite push elements of neoliberal policies. This also sustains their infiltration and eventual domination of what German philosopher Habermas once called the public sphere. For Habermas, capitalism and the corporate elite use the public sphere to achieve their stranglehold over society. To sustain this, the corporate elite use four basic instruments:
1. making sure that the democratic state enacts tax legislation that favours the corporate elite;
2. limiting government social, health and educational programs;
3. setting up an international trading and investment system; and
4. convincing governments to “reform” labour laws to resist trade unions.
Just like top-management and subservient supporters in many business schools, the corporate elite tend to share these four goals just as they share pretty much a similar petit-bourgeois or would-like-to-be-bourgeois lifestyle as well as many of the same values. The corporate elite are ready to control the labour market, eliminate trade unions, minimize government laws and regulations (unless they secure their existence), and avoid taxation to the greatest level humanly achievable.
One of the corporate elite’s most important glues that brings them together remains shared ownership. In many cases, this means holding multiple investments in a range of different corporations that, to the outside world, are made to appear in competition with each other. For the non-expert, the smokescreen of the free market is maintained just as the former editor of the Harvard Business Review once said,
Business executives are society’s leading champions of free markets and competition, words that, for them, evoke a world view and value system that rewards good ideas and hard work, and that fosters innovation and meritocracy.
Truth be told, the competition every manager longs for is a lot closer to Microsoft’s end of the spectrum than it is to the dairy farmers.
All the talk about the virtues of competition notwithstanding, the aim of business strategy is to move an enterprise away from perfect competition and in the direction of monopoly.
Next to the shared ideology of the free market, a similar lifestyle and the conviction that the corporate elite represent naturally born leaders, the corporate elite’s network means they tend to use the same or very similar law firms, virtually the same lobbyists, comparable accounting firms and advertising and public relations (i.e. propaganda) firms. Beyond all that, the corporate elite have also pushed governments to set up business schools (formally set up by the university to pretend independence) and business associations, employer associations, trade associations, chambers of commerce, etc., that enhance corporate interests.
The fact that the corporate elite are strongly opposed to NGOs, the global labour movement, liberals, progressives and a strong environmental movement only reinforces the corporate elite’s well-crafted and perhaps ideologically fabricated self-image of being the underdog, a small group, an endangered species and a minority that is harassed from all sides. To cement ideologies like these, the corporate elite show two key elements:
1. Unity is Strength: there is social cohesion in the form of an interesting symbiosis in which most parts of their opinion-sharing network distribute a few commonly agreed but often implicit interests and ideologies that camouflage their real interest in furthering their position while most importantly increasing their wealth; and,
2. Commonality of Interests: there is an opportunity to develop common institutions – not as conspiracy theories with evil capitalist sitting in smoke-filled backrooms cooking up criminal, immoral and sinful plans for world domination – that can produce and push a relative coherent business outlook and interest that extends far beyond ordinary companies and corporations.
Despite all this, one should not imagine the corporate elite to be a unified bloc but more like a loosely connected community or network which, in terms of politics, ranges from ultra-conservatives like the Koch brothers to more progressives like (potentially) Zuckerberg, (more obviously) George Soros, Bill Gates, Nick Hanauer and Elon Musk and his semi-communist girlfriend.
Nonetheless, as shown during the annual Davos reunion of the corporate elite, members of the corporate elite are able to present themselves “in unity”. This unity stems from wealth and power at a national and international level. It is constructed through their predominant role in the world of business.
Beyond that, the corporate elite are a special-interest group that presents the singularity of their sectarian interest as an interest that serves all. They carry forward the time-honored ideology of what is good for GM is good for America. Then, as today, the corporate elite’s ideological policy planning process is dedicated towards opinion-shaping. In that, the corporate elite follow one of its ideological masterminds of propaganda and public relations who once said,
The significant revolution of modern times is not
industrial or economic or political
but the revolution which is taking place in the
art of creating consent among the governed.
Creating consent among the governed means getting involved in politics and into the political process of candidate selection. Simultaneously, the corporate elite focus on specific short-term policies that favour wealthy families, individual corporations, and the different business sectors within the network of the corporate elite. The entire ideology creation and dissemination project operates primarily through think tanks and meetings like Aspen Institute, the Clinton Global Initiative, the Davos Meeting, corporate lobbyists, company lawyers, trade associations, etc.
Globally, the corporate elite sustain its domination through several leadership groups. These might be called the power elite. Some of the power elite prefer to appear in the limelight. In contrast, many other members of the corporate elite prefer to remain in the background, largely unseen and unknown by the general public. The public image of the corporate power elite is primarily defined by more visible people like those who serve as CEOs, corporate directors and trustees in profit-making institutions, i.e. corporations. Through their power, the corporate elite are capable of controlling ordinary shareholders.
In any case, the corporate power elite’s supremacy works through stock ownership, financial dealings, involvement on governing boards of corporations, or a combination of these. The corporate power elites are individuals who have a superior amount of institutional. i.e. corporate power inside the existing corporate hierarchies they command.
These, too, are not monolithic leadership groups. They might differ in their religious, political and nationalist beliefs. For example, they might support or favor immigration. Some might advocate a strong government, while others might have anti-government attitudes. Others might believe in xenophobia, racism and white superiority. Traces of an authoritarian personality are not uncommon. Still, what unites the corporate elite (wealth maximization and power) is, in general, stronger than divergent political opinions. As a property and wealth-accumulation institution, the corporate elite are more likely to be conservative in its political worldviews.
Their own ideologies (individualism, hard work, personal achievement, etc.) makes it almost impossible for the corporate elite to understand their own network as a form of “collective” power. Yet, the corporate elite still displays a remarkable capacity to group cohesion even class.
To secure their existence and enhance their power, the corporate elite remain rather effective, if not outright productive, in terms of ideology production. Effective production of ideologies comes through two key elements: firstly, the corporate elite have achieved a sufficient degree of collectivity; secondly, they have the technological and communicative resources, organizational forms, social morale and political conviction to achieve common goals.
The organizations of the corporate elite provide a set of rules and roles within which members of the corporate elite network can develop ideologies and political strategies that can accomplish a particular purpose. Beyond that, the organization of the corporate elite provide ways in which its network members simply can “do something together” in a rather routinized fashion, e.g., Davos.
Through their networks, adjacent institutions and organizations, the corporate elite do not just formulate ideologies and broadcast them. At times, they can achieve control over events that dominate, shape, or at least strongly influence the political realm.
Yet, members of the corporate elite can, almost simultaneously, distance themselves from others in the group. This ability aids the public appearance of being individuals with divergent opinions. Mark Zuckerberg falls into this, for example. Another example might be Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post to annoy another multi-billionaire: Donald Trump.
Having delegated the running for corporations downward to top-management and corporate apparatchiks, most corporate elite members are free to entertain themselves by engaging in ideology shaping activities, participating in economic, political, and ideological organizations. In the background of all this runs the economic network of the corporate elite. The economic network rather than the political network remains the more powerful network the corporate elite run.
The secondary network of politics allows the corporate elite to engage in another hobbyhorse, shaping democracy. Political lobbying, think tanks, etc., are the place with the most direct influence over democracy. This is where the corporate elite get involved in governments and state politics. Neoliberal or right-wing populist governments and states (legislative, judiciary, administration) are institutions very much needed by the corporate elite.
Despite the ideology of neoliberalism – free markets, “less red tape”, and the ideology of government is not the solution to our problem, the government is the problem, etc., the corporate elite and, in fact, capitalism as such, depends on a functioning state. It is the state that enforces property, intellectual and patent rights, issues money, enforces legal contracts, runs the police to safeguard wealth, sends the navy to protect shipping routes against modern-day pirates, vaccinates people so they can buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, to impress people they don’t like.
Overall, the corporate elite appear to be somewhat bipolar. They seem to live in two different worlds. One world is the world of its interest symbiosis that demands a strong and ideologically based esprit de corps, collectivity and the setting up of institutions and organizations that can push the rather overarching interest of the corporate elite. This secures the existence of corporations and the continuation of corporate capitalism.
Simultaneously, the corporate elite exist in the world of ideology where they pretend that there is a free market and free competition. They do this even though corporations like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, etc., face next to no competition at all.
Still, the corporate elite need to maintain the ideology façade of neoliberal capitalism. This bipolar double-existence of the corporate elite have been expressed by Harvard Business School’s Joan Magretta, openly admitting the ultimate goal of the corporate elite, business executives are society’s leading champions of free markets and competition … all the talk about the virtues of competition notwithstanding, the aim of business is the monopoly.
This article was published at BuzzFlash on 13 June 2021.
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