It’s an annual exercise on those who exercise power. Forbes released its ranking of the World’s 72 Most Powerful People, a decidedly odd number, but the magazine chooses one power person for every 100 million people on the planet. Of the 72, there are 17 heads of state, including Narendra Modi, but double that number in terms of entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. It leads to the obvious question: has political power lost its clout and its ability to influence, and, by extension, have those in business become more powerful because of the huge markets they control and the type of products they make available to millions around the world? There’s an unusual entry in this year’s listing. Bill Gates ranks number seven, but is listed under The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It is the largest transparently operated private foundation in the world dedicated to improving the quality of life for individuals around the world. The bottomline: do-gooders with credibility are now as powerful as dictators and tyrants with guns and bombs. In his seminal book Powershift, Alvin Toffler argued that the dominant form of power had changed. It shifted from violence (political power) to those with wealth. Toffler’s Third Wave of shifting power was wealth being overtaken by knowledge age. Knowledge is power is almost a cliche these days. In fact, it would explain the presence of so may tech and e-commerce titans on the Forbes list.
The classic definition of power is “a measure of an individual’s ability to bring about change that significantly affects the lives and fortunes of large numbers of people”. Today, it’s fair to say that Google, Apple and Facebook wield enormous clout because of the information highway everyone must move on and the products they make and services they provide which have become integral to people’s lives no matter where they live. In the methodology used to compile the Forbes list, one of the criteria is how candidates actively use their power. Individuals may have power, but to what degree a person is actually and effectively wielding it? Forbes awards bonus points to nominees who created their power themselves and not just through a title or occupancy of the corner office. Mark Zuckerberg has no limit on how long he can run Facebook, nor can anyone dethrone Bill Gates or ignore the clout that a media tycoon like Rupert Murdoch carries. If the definition of power is influencing the maximum number of people, then it’s easy to see why American presidents are in decline, in line with declining American power and why those who pose a threat to the world have increased in terms of clout. Number one on the list is Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and not far below is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the ISIS. The citation says: “Russia looks more and more like an energy-rich, nuclear-tipped rogue state with an undisputed, unpredictable and unaccountable head unconstrained by world opinion in pursuit of its goals.” That is clout and power, no matter how negative a prism it may be seen through.
Generally, though, there are less politicians on the list than 2009 when the first one came out. Indeed, the ones who feature are largely because of their positive contribution. The citation describes Modi as India’s ‘newest rock star’ and adds: “the world is as impressed as the citizens of India”, referring to his domestic plans and initiatives, and the shape his foreign policy is taking. Of course, the difference between political power and any other kind of social “power”, between a government and any private organisation, is the fact that governments have a legal monopoly over the use of physical power. Much of the recent sociological debate on power revolves around the issue of the enabling nature of power. Steve Jobs imagined technology as a force to make human lives better. Bill and Hillary Clinton figure not because of the clout they exercise in Washington, but the work that their foundation does—its stated mission is to “strengthen the capacity of people throughout the world to meet the challenges of global interdependence”. The large number of billionaires and CEOs on the list also suggests that money and power tend to converge. In today’s world, where capitalism is the dominant economic system, money commands respect. And the money men who command the most respect and wield the most influence are those who put it to good use, through philanthropy and financial support to initiatives that are helping large parts of the world, not just the community, state or country they belong to. Power, in whatever form, only really counts when it is transnational. Today, whoever controls technology is on his or her way to controlling the modern world. Technology has become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine a world where you can’t find information with a quick search, buy pretty much anything with a few clicks and connect with people around the world, all on your mobile phone. Facebook, Twitter and sites like Change.org are bringing like-minded people together from across the planet to right a wrong, bring in new legislation, fight for rights of the marginalised and a hundred other causes. These are the new armies and the ones who control the technology that makes all this possible are the real power elite.
The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express