Abby Martin sits down with Peter Phillips, former director of Project Censored and professor of Political Sociology at Sonoma State University. His new book “Giants: The Global Power Elite” details the 17 transnational investment firms which control over $50 trillion in wealth—and how they are kept in power by their activists, facilitators and protectors.
“Giants” is available at Seven Stories Press.
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Abby Martin (AM): Let’s get started by talking about the state of the world today as a result of our global economic system. Can you give us a quick assessment on the current state of human civilization?
Peter Phillips (PP): Well, 80% of the people live on less than $10 a day. That’s all the people in the world, so there’s only 20% that we would call the middle class, so to speak, and then about 1% who are the transnational capitalist class. Those are the really, really rich people. So for the bottom 80%, $10 a day is not very much, and half of those people live on less than $2.50 a day, and the bottom third—over a billion—live on $1.25 a day. So that gross inequality is dramatic. In fact, we have 700-800 million people that are nutrition-malnourished, and 30,000 of them die every day from starvation or malnutrition. So we have an ongoing slaughter of people who aren’t fed, and there’s more than enough food in the world to feed everybody. One third of the food in the world is wasted, but it’s not profitable for capitalism to try to sell them that food, and it’s not profitable to give it to them, so they won’t do it. They’re just seen as surplus people and they’re allowed to die. So that I consider to be a major humanitarian crisis in the world today.
AM: But Peter, the proponents of global capitalism have told us that that’s been decided already. We’ve tried other systems, and capitalism is the best for humanity. What’s your response to that?
PP: Well, they argue that it’s going to trickle down, and that they can continue to grow capital, and that’s part of the problem of capitalism because you have this concentration of money, of capital, that continues to need to grow and expand because they want a return on it. When I write about the giants, the giants are these transnational investment companies with over a trillion dollars’ worth of assets that they are managing. A trillion is a lot. That’s a thousand billions, so when we talk about money in the world, free flowing money, they’ve got the core of it for sure and they invest in the hundred big companies that are putting out 70% of the CO2 in the world. It’s coming from a hundred companies. This has massive negative impacts on the world and the environment, and people are getting poorer, and thousands are dying every day.
AM: It’s hard to think that that would be the best that we have.
PP: There’s got to be a better way. We have enough resources in the world. We could take care of everybody. How we do that is not to make people richer or concentrate wealth more, but to share it better, and to make sure that the resources don’t trickle down but that there is a river down, a flow of money so that people can have an adequate living, they can feed their children, and they can engage in productive activities.
AM: And your book Giants largely focuses on the profiles of the power elite, what you call the activist core of what’s called the transnational capitalist class. Explain this concept.
PP: We know that in that 1% of the world, eight of them have half the wealth in the world, and the top 1% are controlling 90 percent of the wealth in the world, so it is very concentrated. These giant transnational investment companies represent 36 million millionaires and 2,000 to 3,000 billionaires. These companies manage their money for them and invest it in places where they want to get a return. There are 17 of these trillion-dollar investment giants. They collectively control, in 2017, 41 trillion dollars’ worth of wealth ($41,000,000,000,000), so it’s just a massive concentration of wealth and there are only 199 people that are on the boards of directors of those companies. So we have less than 200 people who are deciding the investment policies for 50 trillion dollars’ (which is this year’s figure) worth of wealth in the world, and a lot of those decisions aren’t favorable to most people. It’s favorable to them, so they’re trying to get a return. That’s one of the problems with capital and capitalism: it needs to continue to grow. So the problem with this kind of capital concentration is they run out of places to invest it with good returns, but even then they still have more capital than they’ve got good places to put it. So part of the global neoliberal economic policies is to buy up the world—literally privatize the world so that the highways are bought up, or the water resources in the world. It could be universities and cities. Everything becomes privatized. The public domain is bought up. That’s another way of trying to get a return on investment, and even after that, there’s still more money than there are good places to invest, so we’ve reached a level now of a permanent war.
AM: Let’s go back to the players here, and let’s call out some of these institutions here because we hear about billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates. We hear these names often.
PP: Bezos is the richest man in the world with $160 billion. I think he lost $6 billion last week, which is kind of a laugh for him, but he is the richest person in the world, but he’s just one big tree in a forest. We don’t even list them in the book as part of the global power elite because the global power elite is a sociology of who’s in the forest. These people are interacting together like redwood trees. All their roots are interconnected, and Bezos is just one big tree, but the rest of them are making the policy decisions through a variety of institutions and the direct control of the money they’re investing that impacts the entire world, that impacts us all. They’re all invested in each other, so this is a cluster of interconnected capital with very similar investments. They are all watching each other, and the number of people controlling that could fit in a small mid-sized university auditorium. They could have cocktails together. They all know each other and know of each other. Most of them know each other personally. They all go to Davos together and they hang out.
AM: How did we get here? A hundred years ago we had capitalist powers warring over World War One. We saw a lot that had merged in that fighting. That’s basically why the war happened. After World War Two, obviously, the US took hold in the world with the dropping of nuclear bombs and stated its hegemony. Now it has these collaborators, but how did global capitalism come to this point from there one hundred years ago to where it is today?
PP: The short version essentially is we globalized. We developed and have been developing for a while people at a transnational level who are in corporations. Of the largest 200 economic entities in the world, 150 of them are corporations, so these corporations are massive—bigger than countries. They supersede countries in many cases, and then they use the WTO rules and the IMF rules to loan countries money and then obligate them to invest and produce things that will benefit capital and capitalism. So these companies are totally in charge of the world. That that’s where we’re at, and they operate everywhere. So Amazon’s everywhere. They just reached a trillion dollars’ worth of wealth, and part of that is massive investments by the investment giants. 56% of Amazon’s stock is held by transnational investment giants, and that pushes Bezos’ wealth up rapidly. His wealth went up over 50% in just the last decade.
AM: Your book breaks down several components of the transnational capitalist class, how it protects itself and expands this wealth. Peter, you talked about the facilitators. You talked about the G30 and the trilateral commission. Why do you think that people have no idea really about the think tanks that you’re talking about and what role they really have?
PP: The facilitator groups are the ones that actually make policy, policies of international security and defense, protecting global capital, allowing it to expand and grow everywhere in the world, and undermining governments that resist in any way—governments that are trying to protect their people with laws or rules. That’s the policy of global capital facilitators. These are the people that are advising the World Trade Organization to change rules, change laws, and implement policies that allow for the continued expansion and growth of capital. The number one policy group that is non-governmental is the Atlantic Council. The Atlantic Council is made up of NATO nations, representatives from NATO governments, but they’re not necessarily representatives of government. They’re high-level security people, investment people intermixed, and big corporate officials—high-level corporate officials. The Atlantic Council has a large private budget. They’re putting out annual reports, and these are very powerful non-governmental policymaking entities. To help that along they hire big public relations firms. The big three are Omnicom, WPP, and Interpublic Group, and there are several hundred smaller public relations firms under those three that put out press releases for government, the State Department and corporations on various policy issues. And then there is the corporate media, who we call the ideologists, which are also owned by the giants. They invested in all of them. The big six corporate news media in the world today are putting out as news content what the public relations firms are preparing for them. So what we hear in the news today is Venezuela is a dictatorship, and they’re destroying the country, and they have socialist orientations. It’s actually very democratic, but it’s also challenged by the elites in Venezuela and by US capital elites here, and so the ideologists, the media, are putting out stories of how terrible they are, which are just ludicrous.
AM: The ideologists are a very important component of this, Peter. We have the Atlantic Council now working in concert with Facebook to curate the news. Talk about how problematic that is as well as just the concept of the ideologists’ role to protect the transnational capitalist class. We hear all the time that these Beltway publications like The Washington Post and the New York Times are the premier arbitrators of our objective reality, yet they couch all of their opinions in these so-called experts and policy makers of the exact same think tanks.
PP: There has been massive penetration in that capacity over the last decade and still, of course, there were Facebook pages and Twitter accounts that were considered too extreme by the Atlantic Council, and those got named and several hundred have been purged. We’ll probably see more purging going on in that capacity as well. In the deeply penetrating corporate media today, 80% of the stories that are coming from television news stories are packaged are prepared by public relations firms working for governments or corporations. 80%! That’s a study that’s been validated. We don’t recognize the importance of how much corporate news is managed in very deliberate ways to give us certain messages and not allow criticism of capitalism in any way.
AM: The structure of the corporate media obviously exists to protect capitalism. That’s very obvious, but how exactly is the corporate media also weaponized for Empire. They do it by building these false narratives about everything from Venezuela to Iran in this cartoonish way to build that consensus among the American public.
PP: These are symbolic of how capital is concentrated. So if we’ve got 200 people managing 50 trillion dollars’ worth of capital, and the ownership of course is spread around, but it’s the managers and the ideologists, the big TV stations that are putting out news in our faces every day. They are all the same thing. They have consolidated just in the last 30 years from 50 major media corporations down to six, and then the Washington Post is owned by Bezos, so they’re buying up and/or controlling media content worldwide. It makes your kinds of programs incredibly important. We have to have these alternative voices out there really explaining what’s going on, and I shouldn’t say alternative. I want to say that we’re mainstream. You are mainstream because you’re speaking for the mainstream populations in the world, and these are humanitarian values that we hold. These are very important kinds of concepts that we have to continue to express in every way that we can, and we’re going to get censored. We’re going to get repressed in some capacity. There has been zero coverage of my book Giants: The Global Power Elite in terms of corporate media, and if I get covered, I’m sure it will be negative.
AM: I love that you said that our ideas are mainstream because that contrasts exactly with what the corporate media is designed to do: make us feel disempowered, disenfranchised, and marginalized. That’s the whole neoliberal doctrine. You’re an individual, and you make it on your own, and you don’t need anyone to help you, but we do. And we need to be communicating this with each other.
AM: This is my favorite part of your book, the part about the protectors of the transnational capitalist class. Talk about who they are.
PP: Protectors are NATO, the US military, the police state, and private military. G4S is the second largest private employer in the world with 625,000 people. The only one bigger is Walmart. G4S were the people with the dogs up in the Dakotas that were attacking the demonstrators around the pipeline. They do everything from mercenary activities, war-type activities in Africa and South America to protecting the Israeli settlements from Palestinians. They do it all. They guard banks. They run prisons. They’re a massive private security company. If a company wants to have a green zone, a protection zone, in the middle of any anywhere, they’ll do it for them, and they kill people. Then, of course, Blackwater, which is now Academi, is the other big private military group. Eric Prince is trying to convince Trump to let him take over the war in Afghanistan. They have their own private Air Force in Africa. Private security is rapidly growing internationally. The US military, and NATO in particular, is all over the world now, with 1,000 bases—some of these are lilypad bases in every country in Africa that they can go to immediately. They don’t necessarily have troops there, but they build them ahead of time. We’ve got troops in 140 countries, literally killing people, training people, killing people. It’s to protect capital. It’s not to protect you and me. It’s to protect capital and have capital penetration in all regions of the world. If there’s any interference, they want to try to do a regime change and do debt collection. If a country’s in debt, the military is there to really threaten the government if it’s not going to return debts.
AM: The US military says that this global empire is because of freedom and democracy. You’re saying that that’s not the case.
PP: It’s a lie. For them, freedom and democracy is the freedom of capital to do business anywhere in the world. Corporations are closely linked with what democracy means. It means free enterprise. It doesn’t mean people making decisions at grassroots levels about their lives and passing laws to make people upwardly mobile. It doesn’t mean regulating corporations. It means exactly the opposite.
AM: As a sociologist, Peter, how do you see the interaction between defense companies and these financial investment firms in profiting off war?
PP: They’re closely interconnected. All these big investment companies are invested in war. They make money from it.
AM: Peter, let’s talk about an example here. What about BlackRock and its role in this death machine?
PP: BlackRock is the largest transnational investment company in the world. This year they’ve got six trillion dollars’ worth of assets that they’re investing worldwide. They have $50 billion in Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman each, and so they’re doing huge amounts of investment and benefiting from war. They benefit from investments in everything, but a lot of military companies are involved. All the highest CO2-producing companies are involved. They’re just a massive capital investment company, run by a guy named Larry Fink who’s from LA, and it’s been the most successful investment company. It’s not a bank. It’s just an investment company, and it’s been the most successful in the world. Its massive, and he’s the one who’s on Trump’s advisory board. He’s very active in encouraging the privatization of Social Security.
AM: Briefly discuss how the corporate media is also subsidized by these very institutions.
PP: The big investors are invested in corporate media. They’re also invested in the military contractors, so there’s clearly an overlap of capital interests.
AM: Sometimes it’s very brazen because you’ll be seeing a report on, let’s say, MSNBC, and then they’ll go to an actual commercial from BP or from Lockheed Martin, as if the public is interested in buying weapons or oil.
PP: It always amazes me that Lockheed Martin will run ads about how wonderful their weapons are.
AM: You mentioned climate change, and this kind of adds a new urgency to your studies, Peter. I think 100 companies are responsible for two-thirds of the global emissions. Where do you see this going? Where do you see the inequality going if we don’t correct global capital?
PP: Part of writing the book was to identify the central core, the 300 people who are vital to the central policymaking, facilitating and protecting global capital. There are others, thousands that are associated with that, but I wanted to identify who these players are, and develop the idea that these policy groups and this concentrated capital are really managed with these small numbers of people. We can identify who they are, and so we can lobby them. We can pressure them and we can protest them. People in big metropolitan areas around the world, if they’re starving and they have no resources, and there’s a state trying to control them, ultimately they’re going to resist in a variety of ways. Governments, people inside governments will realize there’s a problem and resist. We see resistance movements all over the world, and whether it’s Bolivarian movements in South America or workers movements in China, or what we had here with Occupy, and other types of movements like it occurring, all that makes them afraid.