Think of any period in human history when empires and imperialism were common features of society, whether from ancient Egypt, Rome, China, to the Ottomans and the rise of the European and Japanese empires. There is an institution that – with few exceptions – was prevalent across most imperial societies: the family dynasty.
In a world dominated by institutions – organized hierarchically and embedded with their own functions and ideologies – the ‘family unit’ is very often the first and most important institution in the development of individuals. For the rich and powerful, the family unit has been the principal institution through which power is accumulated, preserved and propagated, precisely because the interest is multi-generational, requiring long-term planning and strategy.
In powerful states and empires, families have been essential in the process of constructing and governing the major institutions within those societies, as well as in the direct control of the imperial or state structure itself. Whether emperors, kings, queens or sultans, family dynasties have very often exerted direct political control of society. This has been the case for much of human history, at least so long as empires and states have been consistent features. And yet, in the modern era, we imagine our societies to be free of dynastic rule – an archaic feature of a world long past, not consistent with the ideals and functions of democracy, capitalism or modernity. We might imagine this to be true, but we would, in fact, be wrong.
Dynastic power not only remains, but it evolves and adapts, and in the present world of ‘globalization’ – with the growth of the modern nation-states, with the development of state capitalist societies, the banking and financial systems, the monetary-central banking system, industrialization and the multinational corporation – in a world largely dominated by a single state, the United States, acting as the international imperial arbiter on behalf of powerful corporate and financial interests, dynastic power remains a central institution in the global system.
There are, however, notable differences from past era of imperial and royal families. Today, most – but certainly not all – dynasties do not hold formal or direct political authority. The world’s most economically and politically powerful countries are no longer governed by kings and queens or emperors. Instead, modern dynastic power is largely a development that emerged with the decline in the authority of monarchs, and with the rise in parliamentary democracy and capitalism.
As the political and economic spheres began to be opened up, new structures emerged to quickly centralize power within those spheres. As kings and queens handed over the ultimate authority to issue coin to other institutions, merchants and financiers stepped in to increase their influence over the new institutions of a changing world order. Out of these monumental social transformations came new dynasties, embedded within the financial, industrial and corporate oligarchies. Their power was not in direct control of the political apparatus, but in their concentration of control over the financial, economic and industrial spheres. With that power, inevitably, came both the desire and the ability to influence and pressure the political sphere.
Today, it is the industrial, financial and corporate dynasties that have risen to unparalleled positions of authority in the age of globalization. And yet, while some of their names ring familiar to the ears of many, they are frequently thought of as relics of past centuries rather than titans of today, or their names are altogether unfamiliar, as is their positions and influence within our societies. We see power – typically – in terms of those who hold political office: prime ministers and presidents who we elect, as is consistent with our belief that we live in democracies. We see competing factions of political parties vying for office, with us – the people – as the ultimate arbiters of who gets to hold power. The influence of globalization’s dynasties remains unseen, or, misunderstood.
When one hears the concept of relatively few families exerting unparalleled influence over the modern world, the immediate reaction or insinuation is that of a ‘conspiracy theory’. Images of smoke-filled back rooms and mentions of ‘thirteen families’ sitting around a table deciding world events permeate the perceptions of those who question or are confronted with the question of the role of powerful families in the modern world. And yet, the concept of dynastic rule – of families competing, cooperating, and indeed, conspiring with and against each other for control and domination – are prevalent and popular within our culture.
A perfect example of this is with the immense popularity of both the books and the television show, Game of Thrones. Set in a mythical world, yet largely based upon the historical rivalries of the ‘War of the Roses’, we witness the characters evolve and events unfold as several families and dynasties battle each other, conspire, compete and cooperate for control of the known world. They are frequently ruthless, cunning and deceitful, often surrounded by ‘yes men’ or the poison-tongued advisers who rose to their positions not by virtue of birth and name, but by their individual capacities for manipulation and cunning. It is a world in perpetual war, engrossing poverty, with the privileged few sending the poor to fight their battles for them, to die and suffer while the rich few propagate and prosper. With no lack of conspiracies, the greatest threat to individual members of dynasties typically comes from their own or comparatively powerful families. Issues of patriarchy, incest, blood-lust, and secession – to the head of the family or the head of the throne – are consistent throughout.
Indeed, the world of Game of Thrones – so popular in our culture – is not so far from the reality of our culture, itself. In the world of globalization, families cooperate, compete, and perhaps even conspire against and with each other or themselves. They keep the politics of dynastic power from being understood or contemplated by the masses. We are distracted with sports, entertainment, ‘royal weddings’, a fear of foreigners and terrorism, and are blinded and manipulated by a deeply embedded propaganda system. Our celebrity culture celebrates banality and irrelevance: we tune in to the latest Kim Kar-crash-ian disaster of a human being that plasters the tabloids, while we tune out to the rivalries and repercussions of Globalization’s Game of Thrones.
While modern dynasties share many characteristics of past ruling families, they have their major distinctions, largely derived from the fact that most of them do not hold formal political or absolute authority. Past dynasties typically held absolute authority over their local regions, states or kingdoms. That type of authority does not exist at the major state, regional or global levels today, with few exceptions, such as the ruling monarchs of the Gulf Arab dictatorships. Yet, while the mechanism of authority is less centralized or formalized in the modern world, the scope and reach of authority – or influence – has expanded exponentially. In short, while in past eras, a single family may have exerted absolute authority over a comparably small region or empire, today, the indirect influence of a dynastic family may reach across the globe, though it remains far from absolute.
Thus, we should not mistake modern dynasties as replications of previous ruling families. They are adaptations to the modern era. With the emergence and prevalence of globalization, multinational corporations, banks, financial markets, philanthropic foundations, think tanks, media conglomerates, educational institutions, public relations and the advertising industries, financial and industrial oligarchs and dynasties have come to be integrated with the nation-state structure. Families that have established modern dynasties typically rose to prominence through their concentration of power and wealth in financial, industrial and corporate spheres. From these positions, political power and influence became a necessity, or else the loss of economic power would be an inevitability.
Such dynasties would frequently establish a ‘family office’ – a private corporate entity – which would handle all of the investments, interests and finances of a dynasty; they would create new universities which would focus on producing knowledge and intellectuals capable of managing changes within and protecting the social order, instead of intellectual talents or pursuits being channeled into areas that challenge the prevailing order. Dynastic families establish ‘philanthropic foundations’ to serve a dual purpose of justifying their wealth and influence (by being perceived as ‘giving back’), but which, in actuality, provide concentrations of wealth managed for the purpose of ‘strategic giving’: to undertake social engineering projects with an ultimate objective of maintaining social control. While appearing to be ‘charitable’ institutions, the major foundations are predominantly interested in the process of long-term social engineering. Notably among such foundations are the Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Ford Foundation, Open Society Institute, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among many others.
Not unrelated – as they are frequently established and funded by foundations – think tanks are created with the intent to bring elite interests together from a wide array of institutions: financial, industrial, corporate, academic/intellectual, media, cultural, foreign policy and political spheres. In think tanks, top officials from these sectors are gathered in a single institution where they work together to plan strategies for economic and foreign policies, for establishing consensus between elites, and to serve as training and recruitment grounds for officials to enter the political and foreign policy establishment, where they are capable of enacting the very policies developed within the think tanks. Notable think tanks with immense influence – specifically in the United States – include the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Larger, international think tanks have been increasingly common during the era of globalization, uniting respective elites from across the powerful western industrial states, instead of simply the elites within each respective state. Notable among these institutions are the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group and the World Economic Forum.
The prevalence of financial, industrial and corporate dynasties within these institutions has ensured that such families have significant political influence, and have – moreover – played pivotal roles in the construction and evolution of our modern state-capitalist society. Not coincidentally, with the preservation and propagation of modern dynastic power has come the preservation and propagation of modern imperialism, no longer established as a formal colonial system of control. Instead, it is represented as a complex inter-dependency and interaction of institutions and ideologies that manifest as a system of globalized ‘informal imperialism’, with the United States at the center.
Some of the names of these dynasties are better known than others, like Rothschild and Rockefeller, while others are better known within their own countries or barely known at all, like Agnelli (in Italy), Wallenberg (in Sweden) and Desmarais (in Canada). Each family dynasty has their own unique history, with power concentrated in particular companies or family offices. Many, if not most, of these families also have significant connections with each other, acting as joint shareholders in various companies, sitting on the same boards and mingling in the same social circles. They cooperate and they compete with each other for influence in Globalization’s “Game of Thrones”.
This series aims to bring to light some of the stories, players and structures of the world’s dominant dynasties. The research included in this series has been undertaken through The People’s Book Project, a crowd-funded initiative to produce a series of books examining the ideas, institutions and individuals of power, as well as the methods and movements of resistance in the modern world.