'Power, Inc.': David Rothkopf's business critique preaches to the progressive choir

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David Rothkopf's "Power, Inc." is the most recent addition to a burgeoning subgenre of political polemics that focus on the conflict between corporate and government power. Indeed, the book's introduction surveys nearly a dozen such works -- ranging from Richard Barnet and Ronald E. Muller's "Global Reach" (1975) to Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw's "The Commanding Heights" (1998) to Ian Bremmer's "The End of the Free Market" (2011).

Unpromisingly, Mr. Rothkopf admits there's "considerable overlap" between his own offering and the rest of this crowded field. So why the need for one more? Because, he feels, "the roots of all the big questions posed by recent circumstances [reach] much farther back in time." More than a thousand years, as it turns out.

"Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between
Big Business and Government --
and the Reckoning That Lies Ahead"
By David Rothkopf
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($30)

"Power, Inc." begins propitiously enough, taking as its leitmotif one of the world's oldest corporations, Sweden's Stora Kopparberg (now the Finnish-owned Stora Enso). It's an intrinsically fascinating tale, beginning with the story of an inquisitive goat named Kare, who one day wandered off from the herd, only to return some days later with red horns. Retracing the goat's steps in search of the reason for this mysterious transformation, his owner discovered a bog with a rust-colored puddle, emanating from a vein of copper ore. The vein would lead, in turn, to the vast mineral wealth of the Great Copper Mountain (in Swedish, Stora Kopparberg) and the fabled "Mines of Falun" (popularized in one of E.T.A. Hoffmann's grimmer tales). So far, a whopping good yarn.

The longer Stora saga, however, weaves in and out of a broader historical narrative constructed around four turning points in the evolution of both capitalism and the nation-state: 1288, 1648, 1776 and 1848. It's here that Mr. Rothkopf's shaggy-goat story begins to get, well, a bit woolly.

Abandoning the book's four-part design almost as quickly as it was taken up, the narrative immediately jumps from 1288 back to the Dark Ages (fall of Rome to Charlemagne et al.), with a long and tedious retelling of various power struggles between popes and kings. Why? you might ask. "Because they offer a revealing prelude and striking parallels to the public-private sector struggles that followed." Welcome to Western Civilization 101. (And yes, you will be tested on this material.)

The sharp turns from one topic to another are both breathtaking and unpredictable -- from King Olof Skotkonung to King John to Cromwell in the span of two pages, for example.

All the same, would-be Niall Fergusons may question some of the author's revisionist claims. As part of his too-brief engagement with the Industrial Revolution, Mr. Rothkopf cites a British writer named William Digby: "The industrial revolution could not have happened in Britain had it not been for the loot that came from India. It is indeed a curious coincidence: [the Battle of] Plassey (1757), the flying shuttle (1760), the spinning jenny (1764), the power-loom (1765), the steam engine (1768)." The book's footnote acknowledges his source: Contemporary Hindu nationalist and blogger Rajeev Srinivasan, who cites Digby's 1901 " 'Prosperous' British India."

But Mr. Rothkopf passes along the glitches in Mr. Srinivasan's blog post (Digby was a journalist, not a historian; wrong years for the flying shuttle, power-loom and the steam engine). The larger point: Why not cite the book itself? It's only $47.99 on Amazon.

Nowhere in this muddled 436-page critique of capitalism's evolution, however, does "Power, Inc." confront what economic historian Deirdre McCloskey calls the "Great Fact" of the Anglo-American industrial revolution: global income per capita, which was essentially stagnant for most of human history, has risen roughly eightfold since 1820, even as population has risen fivefold. Moreover, incomes have continued to rise at a near-constant rate, through recessions and depressions, lifting billions out of poverty. Such an omission is significant in a book that purports to chart a path toward a new and better capitalism.

Sadly, we are left in the book's closing chapters with a shopworn litany of talking points. Readers of Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria and Paul Krugman will feel themselves in familiar territory, with not much value added. Or, we could be reading longer placards of the Occupatistas:

Corporations have grown too powerful, becoming what Mr. Rothkopf creatively calls "supercitizens," massive bodies without souls. Governments, for their part, have become powerless against this growing corporate juggernaut -- notwithstanding the unprecedented spending and regulatory growth of recent decades -- in many cases, reduced to "semi-states" without full sovereignty. In some instances, however (China, India, Brazil, Russia, Europe), governments have managed to forge successful partnerships with their corporate supercitizens to produce new, "competing capitalisms" that can rival the antediluvian free-market model that prevails in the United States.

So which of these alternative economic systems is best? Well, if we want to keep our seat at the table in this, um, post-American world, concludes Mr. Rothkopf, we'd best start acting more like Stora's original corporate home, Sweden, which -- as he approvingly quotes the words of former Swedish finance minister Par Nuder -- strikes "a better balance ... between caring for its people and remaining competitive, between growth and quality of life, between private and public power, between the interests of a nation and the requirements of globalization."

Ah, Sweden -- it's always the answer. St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Marquis Childs first promoted the Swedish model of "middle way" capitalism more than 75 years ago. Might the thoughtful reader of "Power, Inc." be forgiven for thinking that American progressives haven't turned up a new economic idea since?

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Rodger Morrow (rodgermorrow@gmail.com) is Sewickley-based speechwriter and communications consultant.


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