I live in the former Humboldt Park, once a sleepy Latino neighborhood on the edges of Chicago. Now they call it Logan Square, and assets are springing up everywhere. The shiny new houses are clad in glass and metal and polished wood, as though their value had to be written directly on their faces. Each dwelling seems to double as a bank account and a bet on the future. But for some people it’s clearly the reverse: banking and betting are the primary experiences. So the question arises: What’s it like to live in a bank account? Or more acutely: What’s it like to live in someone else’s bet on the future?
The planned transformation of this old Chicago neighborhood has been driven by the rehabilitation of an elevated train line into a fancy pedestrian jogging trail, the perfect clone of New York’s High Line. Stroll around up there, you can almost see the prices rising. Downtown in the Loop, the financial sector with its global derivatives casino is a more serious clone of Wall Street and the City of London. The remains of the decaying underground line, built in the Roosevelt era, means that even from the old neighborhood you can reach the glittering towers pretty easily. Some people spend their days on the upper floors, biting their nails, making million-dollar bets with algorithms and high-speed computers. Just servicing their needs means you can afford the typical ten-dollar beer in the bars of the new Logan Square. Culture thrives on trade, they say. Maybe, depending on whose culture it is. That relationship gets complicated, between you and me and the TCC.
The Transnational Capitalist Class is a sociological concept forged by Leslie Sklair, now an emeritus at the LSE. In his analysis, the governing stratum of globalized capitalism is composed of four key groups: “1. Those who own and/or and control the major transnational corporations and their local affiliates (corporate fraction); 2. Globalizing politicians and bureaucrats (state fraction); 3. Globalizing professionals (technical fraction); 4. Merchants and media (consumerist fraction).” The power of the TCC derives from a flight beyond national boundaries, toward networked circuits of exchange that escape the tax collectors of the former welfare states, while facilitating the management of physical assets located almost anywhere. A classic image of the new global class (and a reminder of its chilling proximity to the circuits of narco-capital) is the millionaire’s prize par excellence, the gleaming white yacht, fifty to a hundred feet, with smoked black windows and private security guards – a ubiquitous feature of offshore Caribbean tax havens. Sleek, stateless and sexual like a predator shark, the yacht under its flag of convenience is the proxy of personal power in a globalized era. Behind it, the status of dual citizenship granted by fiscal residence on a “treasure island” is what allows the Transnational Capitalist Class to be present in, but not a member of, any specifically bounded territory. The TCC version of proxy politics comes increasingly close to home. They may not personally own the fanciest places in your decaying old neighborhood, but they do own the derivatives of your loans – and the banks that deal in them.
In his book Treasure Islands, the journalist Nicholas Shaxson describes how a vast archipelago of tax-free zones was formed in the post-WWII era by historical British elites seeking new financial powers to replace the military claims of a vanishing Empire. Once established, these offshore operating centers posed such a significant challenge to US capital that their key features had to be internalized, through the massive deregulation of both finance and industry. So-called “neoliberalism” was born, the vampire ghost of the old nineteenth century free-trade regime. It was embodied by the new undead, the TCC. In a few short decades, after the collapse of the Bretton-Woods treaty in 1971, the Transational Capitalst Class achieved a total makeover of the world economy. Today, everywhere is offshore. Which means that not just the British Virgin Islands and the United States, but virtually every country and region offers prime conditions for capital accumulation. The result is the formation of global oligarchies. Since 2008 it has become crystal clear: We are no longer the citizens of democracies. Instead we are the servants (direct or indirect, willing or unwilling) of oligarchs who control tremendous human resources and technological power via finance and other knowledge-intensive means.
The new oligarchs have captured decisive influence over the former national states, to the point of mobilizing the police, secret service and military forces in their own defense. Their reign, though it appears under quite different guises depending on where you are, is extremely sophisticated and unitary. What’s more, it commands equally broad allegiance. The “neoliberal undead” – to quote Marc James Léger – have been able to use the 2008 crisis to shift capital toward the newly developing regions, and in this way, they have turbocharged an already accelerated world economy. Instead of human-oriented development, we are witnessing a hyper-competitive rush toward infinite accumulation, currently supported by the printing of state-backed money on unprecedented scales. Narco-violence, local ganglands, fundamentalism and brutal fascism all flourish around the edges of this juggernaut, but they can’t stop its weirdly abstract expansion. The proxy profits of runaway growth – endless new ports, mines, oil wells, power plants, high-speed trains and freeways – buys the TCC the only award they can seem to conceive, the miracle of capital-as-power. The endgame is the looming prospect of mass extinction, due to capitalogenic climate change.
Interestingly, Sklair has devoted some of his most insightful articles to the iconic architecture of the TCC. His focus is on the way that individual architectural talent symbolizes raw class power, while simultaneously promoting high-end consumption as the cultural-economic touchstone of a largely imaginary global status. In London, the obvious example is Norman Foster’s Swiss Re building: at once a signifier of the ultimate capitalist backstop against risk and disaster (the reinsurance sector) and a cheeky phallic icon to be consumed with populist glee (“the Gherkin”). “Buildings, spaces and architects are iconic to the extent that they symbolize the variegated fruits of the culture-ideology of consumerism,” writes Sklair. In a fascinating digression on the “Grands Projets” of 1990s Paris, he shows how a particular technical innovation in window glazing, patented by one of the key global engineering firms, could subsequently bleed into the boutiques and commercial spaces surrounding I.M. Pei’s iconic Louvre Pyramid. This kind of aesthetic transference distills starchitect gloss for casual consumption – and even (I would add) for the kind of quick-n’-dirty intellectual frisson that helps supply the precarious “creative classes” with fresh ideas to sell to their oligarchical betters.
Since the 1980s, the whole question of global elite culture has been how to absorb, subordinate and neutralize any lingering remnant of the 1960s revolts, or indeed, any new cultural or political challenge of whatever nature or origin. Thus, an elaborate machinery exists to draw in anyone who displays the slightest degree of autonomy. The keyword is “Perform Or Else” – the title of an unforgettable Nineties-era book by Jon McKenzie. The discipline of the old hierarchical societies is replaced by an aspirant desire to connect with the distant sources of money and power. For that you have to put on some kind of show. This is the secret of the mirror architecture that has proliferated since the 1980s. City centers become financialized theaters, narcissistic labyrinths where everyone hopes for a voyeur. The performers paint their value directly on their faces. Your witty remark might land you a job, a publishing opportunity, or a night in a fancy room. Your own image, captured by a name photographer, might become a minor asset in a designer foyer. But the profit, plus interest, always ends up somewhere like the Caymans.
Look around: it’s not just Humboldt Park, nor even its impossibly distant model, the City of London. The signs of this new regime are everywhere. Every wanna-be global city wears them proudly like emblems. We are definitely living in someone else’s bet. Whether you call the bettors the transnational capitalist class, or the neoliberal undead, it doesn’t matter. The real question is: What do you and me have left to wager?