by Ian Richardson, Andrew Kakabadse, Nada Kakabadse
In case you hadn’t noticed, the annual gathering of the transatlantic power elite took place in St. Moritz in June and passed by without too much fuss. Sure, awareness of Bilderberg is increasing, and the crowds outside the event grow each year, but as the glare of publicity shines with increasing intensity on this bastion of elite networking and exclusivity, a number of important things become clear.
First, mainstream media coverage of the conference is increasing – at least in Europe – but the focus remains almost exclusively on the nature, and claims, of the conspiracy theory community. Reporting of Bilderberg has become a pretext for discussion of the weird and paranoid rather than any real attempt to engage with the question of what function transnational elite networks perform in world affairs. The reasons for this today are rather more prosaic than members of the conspiracy theory community believe (although, in fairness, their claim of media suppression of the story does have historical merit). The idea, for instance, that a secret global cabal is pulling strings and influencing world events is considered, frankly, laughable by many in the media and the subject is, unsurprisingly, given a wide berth by credible journalists. For others, i.e. those who participate in the event, informal non-disclosure arrangements ensure privacy but this doesn’t really explain the continuing mystery surrounding the group. Look at the headlines of journals such as The Economist around the time of any Bilderberg conference, for example, and you’ll get a sense of the discussions that have taken place. No, the absence of the real Bilderberg story has more to do with a fundamental failure, on the part of journalists, to understand that there is a story to report. Added to which, of course, the rather complicated realities of world politics fade into insignificance when compared with the entertainment value of patronizing conspiracy theorists.
Second, Bilderberg – and other exclusive policy networks such as the World Economic Forum – are significant events in the transnational elite calendar. While their effects are very subtle, it’s quite wrong to assume they do nothing. They perform a considerable function in the development of narratives that provide legitimacy, as a basis for action, in world affairs. It’s in forums like this that policy consensuses are formed, shaped and disseminated – and although the process is often unconscious, the outcomes are in no way random or accidental. Elite consensus is not some kind of natural or transcendental consequence of elite interaction – it is the product of discreet forces within the elite community. These forces consistently emphasize favorable free trade and globalization agendas and do so, despite conflicting evidence, on the pretext of delivering greater degrees of global social and political harmony. While this description is admittedly less sexy than that of a sinister cadre plotting world domination, make no mistake: the consequences of these discreet, and largely unquestioned, forms of elite consensus have far reaching implications for all of us.
Third, the dependency relationship between media and policy elites is central to our understanding of events and political realities. There’s nothing new here, of course, but what may surprise some people is the extent to which the media has become an integral part of the consensus formation process. It isn’t, as some suggest, simply invited in, or co-opted, for the purposes of spreading elite worldviews. It is a willing and enthusiastic participant in the formation, as well as dispersal, of such ideas. The presence of media participants in elite policy networks is not evidence of a conspiracy – it is a demonstration of the extent to which public, policy and media agendas are interrelated in our liberal societies. And, importantly, it signals a blurring of the lines between events and the reporting of them. Because of its role in shaping consensus, both within the elite community and beyond it, it’s fair to suggest that the media is no longer distinguishable from the subject of its own analysis.
Finally, elite networks are not consciously directing members to think certain things and spread the word accordingly. The processes of consensus formation at work in elite networks are far more discreet than this and, bizarrely, have as much to do with personal motivation and the lure of elite membership than many would care to believe. Most people invited into these networks are unaware of any kind of meaningful agenda – in fact, like organizers, they believe this activity is non-partisan and discussion based. They don’t see the selection processes, the informal acknowledgements of club membership, or the reassuring affirmation that only comes with being seen to think the right thing.
Members of elite groups uniformly deny that their opinions are shaped in any way but, ask them what they have learned or taken away, and discover a significant consequence of the impact of elite networks. Desperate to ingratiate themselves aspiring members of elite policy groups – among them many representatives of the media – defer to the dominant logic and personalities of the network. And, equally keen to impress upon others what they’ve learned, and who they’ve been fraternizing with, they unconsciously dispense this wisdom within their own networks and constituencies.
There are, of course, many journalists who consciously and diligently attempt to retain a sense of detachment but, the higher one ascends, the more seductive the lure of elite membership becomes. The central question, for those with an interest in democratic fundamentals, is in figuring out exactly how detached our informed – and elite – journalists really are.
Dr. Ian Richardson is an Assistant Professor at Stockholm University School of Business and a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University School of Management. His interests include global governance, world politics, business/political collaboration in liberal democracies, elite networks, and the internet.