If reports are to be believed, the great and the good of the Atlantic policy community are once again gathered for the annual Bilderberg conference. The town of Chantilly, Va. -- a stone's throw from Washington, D.C. -- is playing host to the event ensuring, in the middle of a U.S. presidential campaign, the attendance of key members of the U.S. business, political and financial elite. Not that Bilderberg organizers will be unduly concerned about the prospect of "no shows" -- the allure of the conference, even for the most powerful of people, is as irresistible as it ever was.
This Bilderberg gathering, however, comes at a particularly bad time for the transnational power elite. Not only is their enlightened liberal internationalist project unraveling before their very eyes but, to add insult to injury, they now have to parade around in conference-themed jackets to convince increasing numbers of protestors and journalists of how thoroughly decent, collegial and transparent they're being. In an interview on the UK's Channel 4, "The Secret Rulers of the World: The Bilderberg Group," the former Secretary General of Bilderberg, Martin Taylor, once observed that "one of the most frightening things [...] if you're anywhere near people who are in charge of governments or large businesses, is how they too are like 'corks bobbing around on the stream' of what's carrying on." The bizarre spectacle last year of attendees traipsing uncomfortably across the Swiss countryside -- in full view of media lenses -- may have been an attempt to demystify the event but, in terms of convincing people that our elites are capable, assured, and in control, it was nothing short of a PR calamity.
The power and influence of Bilderberg was never meant to be seen and, now its fragile and idiosyncratic nature has been laid bare, by both events and demands for greater transparency, its attendees appear both impotent and faintly ridiculous -- desperately clinging to a sense of importance and purpose while being simultaneously caught in the headlights. Their instinctive reaction, of course, will be to seek more discreet and efficient mechanisms of engagement -- and, without question or hesitation, turn back to the very same logic that helped to bring them (and the rest of us) to this point in the first place. As if to highlight the essential conceit and remoteness of elite thinking, it's a telling sign that, when faced with crowds of protestors, most Bilderberg attendees feel misunderstood. Given reports of attempts to organize a mass "Occupy-style" resistance this week, and the transnational elites' desire to avoid too much fuss, we may well witness the end of an organization that has become, for many, a symbol of the concentrated and hidden nature of elite power in world politics for well over fifty years.
But before critics get too carried away in celebrating the possible demise of Bilderberg, we should first recognize the role that it, and many dozens of other bi-lateral, tri-lateral, regional and global elite networks, play in world affairs. It's easy to argue that elite policy networks are unaccountable, undemocratic and illegitimate -- and that they serve the interests of the few rather than the many. But, international politics is riven with contradictions anchored, as it is, in the agendas and priorities of individual nation states. In the absence of a global regulatory framework, organizations like Bilderberg have helped to blur the edges of an otherwise brittle system of international relations that has consistently failed to transcend its protectionist tendencies. Without them, it's entirely conceivable that we'd have descended into many more international stand-offs and conflicts than we have.
I'm no apologist for the Bilderberg group (see this recent podcast) but neither am I completely naïve.
Transnational elite policy networks such as Bilderberg are an integral, and to some extent critical, part of the existing system of global governance. The practical problem is not so much that they exist, although we could talk about this ad infinitum, it is instead related to what they are doing and why they are doing it. It is here that our elites have been found most wanting. Their self-serving acceptance and peddling of dominant market logics, their fundamental lack of criticality and a lack of meaningful progress in the area of global social and political development is threatening the very peace and prosperity we look to them to provide.
I've never considered myself a radical. Like many people, I've been schooled in the belief that ideology and zero sum politics are dangerous things, that discussion and compromise are infinitely preferable to confrontation and dogma, that anger and violence have no place in a modern progressive society, and that we should vilify and distrust those who suggest otherwise. At heart, I still share these views but something has changed. My sense of fairness, pragmatism and reasonableness has been shaken to the core by the gross injustices of our society and the pervasive incompetence and corruption of our business and political elites. We face a fundamental crisis of legitimacy where engagement with -- and trust in -- our political systems is at an all-time low. Rightly or wrongly, Bilderberg has become a poster child for everything we fear, distrust and loathe about our policy elites. It's not, first and foremost, that our sensibilities have been spiked by systems that are undemocratic -- because, in a meaningful sense, they never have been -- but, critically, the knowledge that they're not acting in the interests of the whole. Our elites have failed us and, what's more, will continue to fail us unless we make them do otherwise.
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