As we are watching the results of the US midterm elections trickle in on our livefeeds (FiveThirtyEight for me; first impression: it’s looking better for the Democrats than expected), I am again reminded how Elon Musk urged his fans to vote Republican. Yesterday, I could only address this in parentheses and called it „ridiculous“ but I want to explain this a little more. My main point is not that Musk is a maverick daredevil who plays by own rules – from a historical perspective, Musk is not atypical for a particular class of businessmen that are gaining prominence again in US and global politics.
A History of Rich People in Politics
It used to be that tech CEOs, as most other business elites (flamboyant counterexamples like Ted Turner notwithstanding) were not particularly open about their politics, doubly so for conservatives in famously liberal California. But the tech scene is no longer dominated by a progressive ethos. Instead, authoritarians, populists, and nativists are becoming more visible there, drawing on some long-standing libertarian roots while moving beyond them into full-blown MAGA territory. The Tech Won’t Save Us podcast has recently done some interesting episodes about this shift which I can recommend.
However, businessmen becoming political figures is certainly nothing new in US politics. Historically, the „robber barons“ of the 19th century Gilded Age – the Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Rockefellers – were not only ridiculously wealthy but also politically active. Outside the US, we frequently use the term „oligarch“ to refer to these super-rich business elites, especially in reference to post-Soviet countries. I think it’s time to decolonize the term and start applying it to Western countries, too.
Rich People in Global Politics
Which brings me to a long-running project I have with Matthias Hofferberth. We started out by asking why we have the kinds of „global governors“ (as Avant, Finnemore, and Sell call them) that we currently have. In other words, who decided that NGOs, corporations, experts, cities etc. should be legitimate political actors in various arenas of global governance? We have published a first theoretical paper to make sense of this and a second, more detailed one in the works. One of our arguments is that the tableau of actors is a product of historical contingencies and structural preconditions and that, as global governance changes, so will the set of actors.
To wit, a proposition: We are witnessing the rise of the oligarch as a more prominent figure in global politics. This is, I believe, a theoretical innovation. Business agency in global politics is typically thought to emanate from the corporation and its political activities. Another possibility is for corporations to work through business associations, which play an important role in many forms of private governance. The person of the CEO rarely figures into this equation.
But oligarchs like Musk, Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma, or, to use a German example, Joe Kaeser are independent political figures. To be sure, they derive much of their agency from their role as CEO but still have considerable independence. And in some cases, the personality of the CEO is more influential than the companies they supposedly represent. Musk is the best example of this, as the CEO of SpaceX, Tesla, Twitter plus various other companies. However, his political work is rarely aimed at improving the regulatory environment of any of these companies but more at shaping the world according to his personal politics.
I’ll have to see if there is a literature that really addresses the political agency of these kinds of celebrity CEOs. There seem to be some pertinent works looking at their role in domestic US politics, but I can’t find anything that looks at this in a more global perspective.