World’s Top Billionaires
The Shocking Amount of Wealth and Power Held by 0.001 percent of the World Population
Many now know the rhetoric of the 1 percent very well: the imagery of a small elite owning most of the wealth while the 99 percent take the table scraps.
In 2006, a UN report revealed that the world’s richest 1 percent own 40 percent of the world’s wealth, with those in the financial and internet sectors comprising the “super rich.” More than a third of the world’s super-rich live in the U.S., with roughly 27 percent in Japan, 6 percent in the U.K., and 5 percent in France. The world’s richest 10 percent accounted for roughly 85 percent of the planet’s total assets, while the bottom half of the population—more than 3 billion people—owned less than 1 percent of the world’s wealth.
Looking specifically at the United States, the top 1 percent own more than 36 percent of the national wealth and more than the combined wealth of the bottom 95 percent. Almost all of the wealth gains over the previous decade went to the top 1 percent. In the mid-1970s, the top 1 percent earned 8 percent of all national income; this number rose to 21 percent by 2010. At the highest sliver at the top, the 400 wealthiest individuals in America have more wealth than the bottom 150 million.
A 2005 report from Citigroup coined the term “plutonomy” to describe countries “where economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few.” The report specifically identified the U.K., Canada, Australia and the United States as four plutonomies. Published three years before the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, the Citigroup report stated: “Asset booms, a rising profit share and favorable treatment by market-friendly governments have allowed the rich to prosper and become a greater share of the economy in the plutonomy countries.”
“The rich,” said the report, “are in great shape, financially.”
In early 2013, Oxfam reported that the fortunes made by the world’s 100 richest people over the course of 2012—roughly $240 billion—would be enough to lift the world’s poorest people out of poverty four times over. In the Oxfam report, “The Cost of Inequality: How Wealth and Income Extremes Hurt Us All,” the international charity noted that in the past 20 years, the richest 1 percent had increased their incomes by 60 percent. Barbara Stocking, an Oxfam executive, noted that this type of extreme wealth is “economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive and environmentally destructive...We can no longer pretend that the creation of wealth for a few will inevitably benefit the many—too often the reverse is true.”
The report added: “In the UK, inequality is rapidly returning to levels not seen since the time of Charles Dickens. In China the top 10 percent now take home nearly 60 percent of the income. Chinese inequality levels are now similar to those in South Africa, which is now the most unequal country on Earth and significantly more unequal than at the end of apartheid.” In the United States, the share of national income going to the top 1 percent has doubled from 10 to 20 percent since 1980, and for the top 0.01 percent in the United States, “the share of national income is above levels last seen in the 1920s.”
Previously, in July of 2012, James Henry, a former chief economist at McKinsey, a major global consultancy, published a major report on tax havens for the Tax Justice Network which compiled data from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the IMF and other private sector entities to reveal that the world’s super-rich have hidden between $21 and $32 trillion offshore to avoid taxation.
Henry stated: “This offshore economy is large enough to have a major impact on estimates of inequality of wealth and income; on estimates of national income and debt ratios; and—most importantly—to have very significant negative impacts on the domestic tax bases of ‘source’ countries.” John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network further commented that “Inequality is much, much worse than official statistics show, but politicians are still relying on trickle-down to transfer wealth to poorer people... This new data shows the exact opposite has happened: for three decades extraordinary wealth has been cascading into the offshore accounts of a tiny number of super-rich.”
With roughly half of the world’s offshore wealth, or some $10 trillion, belonging to 92,000 of the planet’s richest individuals—representing not the top 1 percent but the top 0.001 percent—we see a far more extreme global disparity taking shape than the one invoked by the Occupy movement. Henry commented: “The very existence of the global offshore industry, and the tax-free status of the enormous sums invested by their wealthy clients, is predicated on secrecy.”
In his 2008 book, Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making, David Rothkopf, a man firmly entrenched within the institutions of global power and the elites which run them, compiled a census of roughly 6,000 individuals whom he referred to as the “superclass.” They were defined not simply by their wealth, he said, but by the influence they exercised within the realms of business, finance, politics, military, culture, the arts and beyond.
Rothkopf noted: “Each member is set apart by his ability to regularly influence the lives of millions of people in multiple countries worldwide. Each actively exercises this power and often amplifies it through the development of relationships with other superclass members.”
The global elite are of course not defined by their wealth alone, but through the institutional, ideological and individual connections and networks in which they wield their influence. The most obvious example of these types of institutions are the multinational banks and corporations which dominate the global economy. In the first scientific study of its kind, Swiss researchers analyzed the relationship between 43,000 transnational corporations and “identified a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy.”
In their report, “The Network of Global Corporate Control, researchers noted that this network—which they defined as “ownership” by a person or firm over another firm, whether partially or entirely—”is much more unequally distributed than wealth” and that “the top ranked actors hold a control ten times bigger than what could be expected based on their wealth.” The “core” of this network—which consists of the world’s top 737 corporations—control 80 percent of all transnational corporations (TNCs).
Even more extreme, the top 147 transnational corporations control roughly 40 percent of the entire economic value of the world’s TNCs, forming their own network known as the “super-entity.” The super-entity conglomerates all control each other, and thus control a significant portion of the rest of the world’s corporations with the “core” of the global corporate network consisting primarily of financial corporations and intermediaries.
In December of 2011, the former deputy secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration, Roger Altman, wrote an article for the Financial Times in which he described financial markets as “a global supra-government” which can “oust entrenched regimes... force austerity, banking bail-outs and other major policy changes.” Altman said bluntly that the influence of this entity “dwarfs multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund” as “they have become the most powerful force on earth.”
With the formation of this “super-entity”—a veritable global supra-government—made up of the world’s largest banks and corporations exerting immense influence over all other corporations, a new global class structure has evolved. It is this rarefied group of individuals and firms, and the relations they hold with one another, that we wish to further understand.
According to the 2012 report, “Corporate Clout Distributed: The Influence of the World’s Largest 100 Economic Entities,” of the world’s 100 largest economic entities in 2010, 42 percent were corporations while the rest were governments. Among the largest 150 economic entities, 58 percent were corporations. Wal-Mart was the largest corporation in 2010 and the 25th largest economic entity on earth, with greater revenue than the GDPs of no less than 171 countries.
According to the Fortune Global 500 list of corporations for 2011, Royal Dutch Shell next became the largest conglomerate on earth, followed by Exxon, Wal-Mart, and BP. The Global 500 made record revenue in 2011 totaling some $29.5 trillion—more than a 13 percent increase from 2010.
With such massive wealth and power held by these institutions and “networks” of corporations, those individuals who sit on the boards, executive committees and advisory groups to the largest corporations and banks wield significant influence on their own. But their influence does not stand in isolation from other elites, nor do the institutions of banks and corporations function in isolation from other entities such as state, educational, cultural or media institutions.
Largely facilitated by the cross-membership that exists between boards of corporations, think tanks, foundations, educational institutions and advisory groups—not to mention the continual “revolving door” between the state and corporate sectors—these elites become a highly integrated, organized and evolved social group. This is as true for the formation of national elites as it is for transnational, or global, elites.
The rise of corporations and banks to a truly global scale—what is popularly referred to as the process of “globalization”—was facilitated by the growth of other transnational networks and institutions such as think tanks and foundations, which sought to facilitate these ideological and institutional structures of globalization. A wealth of research and analysis has been undertaken in academic literature over the past couple of decades to understand the development of this phenomenon, examining the emergence of what is often referred to as the “Transnational Capitalist Class” (TCC). In various political science and sociology journals, researchers and academics reject a conspiratorial thesis and instead advance a social analysis of what is viewed as a powerful social system and group.
As Val Burris and Clifford L. Staples argued in an article for the International Journal of Comparative Sociology (Vol. 53, No. 4, 2012), “as transnational corporations become increasingly global in their operations, the elites who own and control those corporations will also cease to be organized or divided along national lines.” They added: “We are witnessing the formation of a ‘transnational capitalist class’ (TCC) whose social networks, affiliations, and identities will no longer be embedded primarily in the roles they occupy as citizens of specific nations.” To properly understand this TCC, it is necessary to study what the authors call “interlocking directorates,” defined as “the structure of interpersonal or interorganizational relations that is created whenever a director of one corporation sits on the governing board of another corporation.”
The growth of “interlocking directorates” is primarily confined to European and North American conglomerates, whereas those in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East largely remain “isolated from the global interlock network.” Thus, the “transnationalization” of corporate directorates and, ultimately, of global class structures “is more a manifestation of the process of European integration—or, perhaps, of the emergence of a North Atlantic ruling class.”
The conclusion of these researchers was that the ruling class is not “global” as such, but rather “a supra-national capitalist class that has gone a considerable way toward transcending national divisions,” notably in the industrialized countries of Western Europe and North America; in their words, “the regional locus of transnational class formation is more accurately described as the North Atlantic region.” However, with the rise of the “East”—notably the economic might of Japan, China, India, and other East Asian nations—the interlocks and interconnections among elites are likely to expand as various other networks of institutions seek to integrate these regions.
The influence wielded by banks and corporations is not simply through their direct wealth or operations, but through the affiliations, interactions and integration by those who run the institutions with political and social elites, both nationally and globally. While we can identify a global elite as a wealth percentage (the top 1 percent or, more accurately, the top 0.001 percent), this does not account for the more indirect and institutionalized influence that corporate and financial leaders exert over politics and society as a whole.
To further understand this, we must identify and explore the dominant institutions which facilitate the integration of these elites from an array of corporations, banks, academia, the media, military, intelligence, political and cultural spheres.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, head of the Geopolitics Division of the Hampton Institute, Research Director for Occupy.com’s Global Power Project and hosts a weekly podcast show at BoilingFrogsPost.
—AlterNet, June 12, 2013