University of Amsterdam: There is a rising global elite, but (yet) without a common goal

Are people like Jeff Bezos from Amazon, Sheryl Sandberg from Facebook and Jack Ma from Alibaba part of a global power elite who make decisions about our future world? Diliara Valeeva analysed 200 million corporations and observes a rising group of business leaders who are internationally connected and can be influential at the global level. But, she states, they are likely to represent their nation-state interests rather than a coherent global elite interest. ‘There is no one global elite yet with a strongly determined common interest.’ Wednesday 10 November Valeeva will defend her PhD thesis at the University of Amsterdam.

Recently, some critics, and conspiracy theorists alike, have been arguing that people like Bezos, Sandberg and Ma could be part of the so-called ‘global power elite’. This ‘global power elite’ is often imagined as a group of global leaders who once in a while meet and make decisions about the future of the world. ‘These kinds of speculations, that are often not based on empirical evidence, began to take place in public discussion for two reasons’, states political scientist Diliara Valeeva who studied business elites. ‘First, we observed enormous levels of wealth inequality between rich and poor during the last few decades, and second there has been a rise and success of populist leaders like Trump or Bolsonaro who presented themselves as anti-elitist, even though they were not.’

Analysing 200 million corporations
In her research Valeeva addressed the questions: does a ‘global power elite’ exist? If yes, who are these people? Where do they come from? And how are they connected with each other? To answer these questions she analysed data of around 200 million corporations and their board directors and owners, ‘those people who own and rule big corporations, participate in corporate lobbying, influence political decisions, and (also) hide billions in tax havens.’ With her study Valeeva makes an important contribution to our knowledge about the influence and power of elites and corporations, challenging the concept of a transnational capitalist class.

Results show an emerging elite and fragmentation
Through a big data approach and using computational methodology, Valeeva first looks at the global picture and then zooms in on case studies of national elite groups. She identified a set of key global cities in which transnational elite members operate. ‘The detected city backbone of corporate elite locations consists of European global cities, but is also characterized by the emergence of cities from Asia and Oceania’, highlights Valeeva. ‘These findings demonstrate that the transnational corporate elite network is characterized by the emergence of specific regional elite groups and remains highly fragmented.’

Valeeva further investigated how the transnational corporate elite network has been forming and expanding over time. She uncovers regionally determined career patterns that corporate elite member follow since the beginning of the 2000s. ‘Generating mechanisms of the transnational corporate elite network have been predominantly regionally organized’, she states.

In a third step Valeeva studied how ties are being established among different transnational corporate elite fractions. She concludes that network-building strategies of multiple regional elite groups determine the nature of the transnational corporate elite network. She also observes how network-building practices strengthen ties across different parts of the network, such as between Chinese and European corporations, ‘enhancing corporate elite cohesion within and across nation-states’.

Valeeva continued to explore the driving mechanisms of corporate elite networks within a nation-state, by analysing how networks of board directors are forming and evolving in Denmark. This showed that national elite networks are themselves characterized by a variety of actors and their interests. ‘This national dynamic underlines the complex nature of the transnational corporate elite network’, says Valeeva.

Finally, Valeeva shows the dependence of the transnational elite network on nationally-created systems of elite formation and reproduction. ‘Individuals holding noble titles have higher chances of becoming transnational elite members in comparison with non-titled individuals, like they do within their nation-states.’ Valeeva observes that the transnational corporate elite reproduction might not be significantly different from elite reproduction existing within national domains.

Global corporate elite network fragmented and representing national interests
Valeeva concludes that we can indeed talk about a rising group of business leaders who are internationally connected with each other and can be influential at the global level. But, the transnational corporate elite network remains fragmented and strongly embedded in national elite circles, representing nation-state interests. ‘The transnational corporate elite is rather a consolidation of national elites than a united elite group with a coherent elite interest’, concludes Valeeva. ‘The nature of the transnational corporate elite network is significantly determined by the properties of national elite networks. So there is no one global elite yet with a strongly determined common interest, it rather consists of various coordinating fractions. ’

Thesis details
Diliara Valeeva, 2021, ‘The transnational corporate elite network. Nature and properties’, promotores: dr. Eelke Heemskerk and prof. Brian Burgoon.