January 3, 2010 7:47 pm

Shadow Elite

Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market
By Janine Wedel
Basic Books ($27.50)

The serious study of global affairs is usually left to political scientists, economists, lawyers and journalists. Anthropologists, as a group, somehow seem more suited to whacking through rainforest with a machete to study tribal totems than pontificating on international politics.

Now, however, one anthropologist has turned the profession’s pith-helmeted gaze on the top-level politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen who make up the global elite in an attempt to document how well they do their jobs. It sounds like a stretch, but in fact there is something uniquely exhilarating about studying the White House or the International Monetary Fund using the same methods that one would study ritual incest among aboriginal Guyanans.

Janine Wedel, author of Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market, is not doing anthropology in the classical sense of Durkheim, Boas and Levi-Strauss. Her argument is that political culture at the beginning of the 21st century has changed in such a way as to make it easier, and sometimes even obligatory, for individuals to mask their true agendas and conflicts of interest in creating policies. Much of this is due to the privatisation of government functions.

One of the main reasons governments make bad decisions, she believes, is bad information supplied by people with camouflaged agendas, people she describes as “flexians”, who often work simultaneously for private interests, academia and government at the same time.

“Flexians”, or “flex nets” (networks of flexians) take the notion of conflict of interest to a whole new level. They are not the “old boys network” and cannot be reduced to lobbyists or interest groups. They are individuals who combine usually an academic or journalistic position with a political one and a commercial one. More than opportunists, they are often ideologues whose primary purpose is to push a cause rather than enriching themselves. But the true motives often get lost amid the various conflicting agendas they must juggle.

“Obtaining reliable information about a player’s roles, sources of funds, and actual track record may be difficult, and viable monitoring systems are usually lacking. Flexians can thus continue unchecked to convert their environment into one that is friendly to them,” Ms Wedel writes.

One of several examples she cites is the controversy surrounding retired US four-star general Barry McCaffrey, who is or has been simultaneously a commentator for the media, a consultant to the defence industry and professor. According to a 2008 exposé in the New York Times, he was one of several former military men who helped to shape public opinion on the Iraq war, while simultaneously having undisclosed ties to the Pentagon.

Another of Ms Wedel’s examples is Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor. In September 2005, before losing his bid for re-election, Mr Schröder signed a contract on behalf of the German government with Gazprom, Russia’s gas monopoly, on the construction of a pipeline under the Baltic Sea. After the election, he accepted a position as head of Gazprom’s shareholders’ committee.

Both these cases illustrate something disturbing, but putting one’s finger on just what is hard to do. Ms Wedel’s thesis is not completely satisfactory. For example, the Baltic Sea pipeline championed by Mr Schröder is still supported by the German government and is arguably good policy, albeit controversial. Likewise, Gen McCaffrey’s affiliations may not have affected his analysis, and as a former general, it is likely that most readers or television viewers who saw his commentary understood that he would be a pro-Pentagon voice.

Nonetheless, there is much to be uneasy about. Dealing with information today is like drinking from a firehose. It is virtually impossible to keep track of everyone’s agendas, and the temptation is simply to ignore them. Instead of careful analysis, we rely on appearances of the moment, which are easy to manipulate. As the Daily Show comic John Stewart put it: “You cannot, in today’s world, judge a book by its contents.”

But this book perhaps unintentionally offers a useful corrective to conspiracy theories that locate the source of such manipulations in the grand schemes of master-puppeteers. Refreshingly, it turns out anyone can be a flexian – all it takes is commitment, an education and a BlackBerry. If you are unhappy with the way the flexians are running things – well, go out and be one yourself.

The writer is the Financial Times Moscow bureau chief

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