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How Culture Redefined Financial Power

Worth’s Power 100 provides an in-depth look at who’s wielding financial power this year. But it also shows just how dramatically the definition of financial power has changed.

financial power Left to right: Donald Trump, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor, Henry Ford. Illustration by Jacob Myrick

One hundred and fifty years ago or so, it would have been so much easier. Anyone charged with compiling a list of the most powerful individuals in finance could have used a simple tabulation: wealth. Look at the size of someone’s fortune and assume that power follows in direct proportion. That list would have included John Jacob Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould and Andrew Carnegie—titans all. Even some 100 years ago, the list wouldn’t have required too much deliberation, though there would have been an additional component: the effects of wealth on our economic life. In this iteration, power was not simply a function of possessing great wealth, but of changing society, or at least the economic dimensions of it, even reshaping it to one’s will. That list would have included Henry Ford with his industrial innovations, J.P. Morgan with his financial machinations and John Rockefeller with his monopolistic depredations.

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Wealth itself is one of the least important criteria in assessing financial power.

But over the years, especially over the last 10 or 20 years, neither of these constructs seems particularly adequate or relevant anymore. Wealth itself is one of the least important criteria in assessing financial power. To look at some of the topliners on the Worth list over the past decade, only Laurence Fink (2016), the CEO of BlackRock and the world’s largest asset manager, would have qualified by that old standard. As for the others, Ben Bernanke (2010), the former Fed chair, could hardly contend money-wise with the plutocrats, and while he may have helped save the American economy from ruin, he hardly bent it to his will. Mary Jo White (2013) and Preet Bharara (2014) are neither extravagantly wealthy nor did they reconfigure the nation’s economic architecture (basically, they terrified the kinds of people who might have been on those old lists), and Pope Francis (2015) has both taken a vow of poverty, which removes the wealth measure entirely, and has raged against the excesses of capitalism, which makes him only indirectly a financial game-changer. Xi Jinping (2017), the Chinese leader whose wealth is indeterminate, has certainly influenced the world economic order, but one would be hard put to say that he has reinvented that order.

And yet, no one would deny that each of these individuals has wielded enormous power in the financial world. They just haven’t done so in traditional ways.

The world of finance is no longer self-enclosed. It has been interpenetrated with the larger culture.

That’s because the idea of financial power has changed dramatically in recent years. That power is no longer segregated to the world of finance, in money and business. It is much more expansive. And that’s because the world of finance is no longer self-enclosed. It has been interpenetrated with the larger culture—has even merged with the larger culture, including popular culture—turning finance into a multipurpose signifier. And while there are still remnants of more conventional views of financial power—wealth accumulators like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, or business magnates like Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and the other social media monarchs—the real powerhouses in finance are just as, if not more, likely to be those individuals who not only wield financial control through their fortunes or change industrial contours, but also those who redefine financial power from anachronistic concepts into novel ones.

The interpenetration of politics and finance, one of the most obvious convergences, is not exactly new. Surely, Franklin Roosevelt would have topped this financial power list in 1933. But the ways in which even political power has multiplied is new—from reconfiguring the financial community, to patrolling it, to regulating and circumscribing it, to apportioning its resources—and it is a great power indeed. Bernanke wielded that power. So too did Mario Draghi (2012), the head of Europe’s Central Bank, who played a leading role in doling out loans that stabilized the European economies during the Great Recession. In an entirely different way, White and Bharara were also exemplars of financial power-cum-political power—theirs by bringing financial miscreants to heel in the service of a fairer economy. In effect, their power was changing the balance of financial power.

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More unusually, and perhaps more significantly, because it is so widespread and has proven so effective, is the way in which celebrity and wealth have interpenetrated to create a new kind of financial power. To wit, Donald Trump (2018). Trump built his power upon this very idea of “celebritizing” wealth, and then parlayed his financial power into political power. Trump was never the world’s richest man, despite his vaunts. He was never an institution shaper either. He was a rich man manqué—a poor man’s idea of a rich man—who built his celebrity on the pretense of his great wealth and then, because celebrity is fungible, sold that celebrity to build more wealth and accrue more power, which is just as convoluted as it sounds. Trump’s primary asset is his name, for which he has been handsomely paid to let others slather it on buildings and products. But even if the asset seems hollow, there can be no doubt about the power it endows. It is just not the conventional power we think of when we think of finance. It is financial Kardashianism.

Perhaps the most anomalous form of financial power is that derived from what you might call the religion of wealth. That wealth has assumed religious proportions is no more novel than the idea that finance has assumed political proportions; as early as 1925, advertising executive Bruce Barton wrote a best seller titled The Man Nobody Knows, which characterized Jesus as the first modern businessman. But when Pope Francis toplined this list he didn’t do so because he found a convergence of Catholicism and materialism, but because he argued for precisely the opposite. Francis’ power was his critique of capitalism—his power to change the operation of finance by changing its moral basis. And that is a decidedly new kind of financial power too—almost financial anti-power.

It used to be so simple. But power has so many different facets now.

What all this betokens is that as finance has metastasized into the general culture and the general culture into finance, the two are now inextricably bound up. It would not be shocking for a future list to be headed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Elizabeth Warren, or by chief justice John Roberts, whose court has gone a long way toward empowering financial behemoths, or by Boris Johnson, who may take England out of the EU by a hard exit, or by the economic Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, or by the street artist Bansky, who has satirized financial power, or by some young filmmaker who either celebrates wealth or excoriates it, or by some video game entrepreneur who devises a game that turns financial pursuit into a form of super-heroism or evil. It used to be so simple. But power has so many different facets now, so many different loci, that determining who holds that power has become very complex. And it is only likely to get more so—much more so.

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