Book Review: 'Power, Inc.' by David Rothkopf

A sprawling new book makes the case that companies, not kings, now rule the world.
March 1, 2012 |
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In the beginning, there was the goat. Sometime during the Dark Ages, in a corner of present-day Sweden, a goat named Kare broke free from his herd and went frolicking in the woods near the town of Falun. When Kare returned home, his owner noticed the goat’s horns had turned red: the color of copper. The discovery of that valuable and versatile metal at the place Swedes call Great Copper Mountain would kick-start economic development in Northern Europe, sustain the ambitions of Sweden’s monarchs, and, for a time, turn a cold, remote kingdom into one of the world’s great powers.

The story of Kare the Goat also serves as a kind of creation myth for David Rothkopf’s sprawling new book, Power, Inc. Stora Kopparberg, the business established in 1288 to mine for copper in the hills above Falun, still exists, making it the “oldest continuously operating corporation in the world.” Except now it specializes in paper products instead of copper, has offices in 35 countries, and boasts “annual sales that are larger than the GDP of almost a hundred countries.” Rothkopf argues that the evolution of Stora from a scrappy, goat-founded outfit to a $20 billion multinational business is emblematic of a tectonic shift in international relations, in which global corporations today wield greater power than all but a handful of nation-states. In that sense, the book’s subtitle is misleading: The “epic rivalry” between Big Business and government isn’t a rivalry at all. It’s a rout.

A former deputy under secretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration, Rothkopf has written two previous books on the power elite and is a reliable source of sound bites about U.S. foreign policy. But readers expecting a campaign-season analysis of current affairs will be disappointed, at least for the first two-thirds of Power, Inc., as they realize that the story of Kare the Goat is only the beginning of a breathless account of the last 700 years of Western political history.

Rothkopf is an energetic storyteller with an eye for the grisly, if gratuitous, historical anecdote. (He includes, for example, an extended eyewitness account of the beheading of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170.) Yet despite the author’s best efforts, the narrative sputters. Rothkopf provides a refresher on stuff that you never could keep straight in AP History class, such as who was defenestrated in Prague, or what precedent was set by the Supreme Court in Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward. But this book might also remind you why it was so hard to pay attention in the first place.

Fortunately, the story of Stora is fascinating enough on its own. Beginning in the 1500s, Sweden’s rulers used the hard currency generated from copper sales to expand the powers of the state and exert authority over the church. During the first half of the 17th century, Stora became a chief supplier of copper for the munitions used by Europe’s warring armies. The prime beneficiary was King Gustavus Adolphus, under whom Sweden reached “a zenith of international influence it would never again achieve.” By 1650 the mine was producing 3,000 tons of raw copper. Gustavus’s daughter, Christina, said, “Sweden stands or falls with Copper Mountain.”

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