Extracts from interview with Ian Richardson
Ian Richardson is an Assistant Professor at Stockholm University Business School, the Director of Executive Education at SU Business School and a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University School of Management. His research interests include global governance, transnational policy networks, business and political elites, multi-stakeholder collaboration, power and consensus, and political marketing. Based on his research he co-wrote Bilderberg People: Elite Power and Consensus in World Affairs (Routledge 2011) with Andrew and Nada Kakabadse. Richardson was the lead author.
Richardson spoke with the investigative programme MOT's reporter Hannu Sokala on the 7th August.
MOT: How did you become interested in the Bilderberg group in the first place?
Richardson: I started off thinking about the relationship between business and politics in our modern societies and looking at the relationship between these two things in relation to how policies come about. And it became obvious after a while that much of the literature in this area was concerned with the everyday workings of politics, lobbying and so forth, it didn't really explain to me where the ideas that underpin policy come from. I wanted to understand where the consensuses between major policy ideas were actually formed. Did they just come out of the ether, or were they actually being in some way shaped for consumption, not necessarily deliberately but, perhaps, in an unconscious way? Because, take any policy issue, generally we have a set of responses to it, we tend to think about the policy issue in a certain way. But that can change over time and how we define that problem will very much determine how we respond to it, so I was interested in the definition of problems. And when I started to look into that I realized there was a whole host of activity that was taking place at the kind of broad level that was really responsible in part for the shaping of these ideas. It's very much the function of our elites, our political, our business, our media, our academic intellectual elites to in some sense make sense of the world for us, so that we can consume it. So I was interested in that, where these ideas come from.
MOT: Which were the biggest surprises?
Richardson: I think the most obvious discovery early on was that power in world politics today is not the way that many people believe it to be. Power is a much more subtle instrument than it was perhaps 30 to 40 years ago. That's not to say that military might and the traditional hard instruments of power aren't relevant, it's just to say that legitimacy is a much more important instrument than it has been in the past. That was the first discovery, and the second discovery was the finding that among those people you would consider to be most in control, most able to respond, there was . . . you find the very same human traits you find everywhere else, you find these people have absolutely no idea what's going on. Of course they look like they do and they try to make sense of it, they do their best to create a sense of what's going on, but actually one of the most interesting aspects of this is something that the former Secretary General of the group, Martin Taylor, referred to some years ago, when he said one of the most alarming things about being around powerful people is that you discover they too "are like corks bobbing around in an ocean of what's going on". And I think there's a lot of truth to that because the more people that I spoke to and met in the course of this activity, the more I realized that they too were just desperately trying to respond constructively to world events.
MOT: What is the role of elite networks in world politics today?
Richardson: I think the obvious role, from the perspective of the elites themselves, is to build bridges in one form or another. Networking is the clue here. It's something that people in elite groups do quite naturally in their own business or political communities. This is a sort of logical extension of that, a more . . . elite form of elite networking if you like so it's something that is a natural progression, many people don't actually think about the purpose of this.
MOT: Etienne Davignon has said that the Bilderberg group helped create the euro in the 1990's, what's your take on that?
Richardson: I think there's definitely evidence to support that. It wasn't the forum that created the euro, but certainly at events of this kind, and conferences of this kind, the preparatory discussions were taking place . . . So if we go back to the 50's and 60's in the early years, first the European Community, the European Union and of course the European Monetary Union, the Bilderberg group has been highly instrumental in that, without necessarily being the forum in which the detail and exact precise nature of these things was created. Exactly how much, we don't know, and it was one of a number of forums that would've facilitated those discussions among the elite. But I don't think it's right to say it was the only place.
MOT: Why hasn’t there been more academic studies of elite networks?
Richardson: Well, that is a difficult question to answer, I mean it is clear that we have not as an academic community addressed this subject in the way perhaps that we have in other areas. One of the most obvious explanations for this is that from an academic research perspective it's very difficult to access the kinds of questions we'd like answers to, and it's a very soft subject as well. So there are some practical issues, but there are some institutional issues as well in academia. We tend to view the subject area as being slightly not serious in some way, the idea of global elite is not a serious proposition, it sort of rings of conspiracy theories and so on. And I think for that reason people naturally steer clear of the subject, in an industry where reputation is of course very important.
MOT: You wrote in the Huffington Post a couple years ago that reporting of Bilderberg has become a pretext for discussion of the weird and paranoid rather than any real attempt to engage with the question of what function transnational elite networks perform in world affairs. Would the Bilderberg group invent the fringe, if it weren't there?
Richardson: I've often thought one of the best conspiracy theory ideas is that the conspiracy theories surrounding the group were the best possible cover. But that would be unkind to people who have some genuine concerns about what's taking place here. But clearly, when you look at media coverage of this annual event, there isn't a lot to go on. Very often we know a month beforehand where it's going to be, roughly who is going to be in attendance, but we don't know much more than that, and so we'll report the fact that an event is occurring, we're gonna report that as usual it's going to be behind closed doors and we're going to report the fact that it's surrounded by a fringe of people who are very, very adamantly opposed to its occurring . . . The question of what is actually materially taking place, not in terms of discussions but also in a macro sense, how does this contribute to our global governance. Those questions are not really being tackled, because they don't really conform to the standard newsbyte format, these are very complex issues, and very soft and they don't have a punchline very often.
MOT: What kinds of people are not invited to Bilderberg meetings?
Richardson: I would say that the people that usually don't know any of the attendees, that's a good start. People are largely selected by members of the steering committee on the basis of who is known, who's been seen that year, who's prominent that year, who seems to be an interesting person to invite, there's all sorts of reasons articulated why certain people are invited, but I
think it's safe to say the reasons for being invited are not necessarily the same reasons for over time becoming a member of the group. The two things are very different. So, I think from the outset, having a world view that seems to be in some sense enlightened, being a person of the world, being reasonably open minded, articulate, intelligent, being somewhat powerful perhaps in your own domain, these are all reasons for being invited - but crucially, knowing someone on the committee is high, if not highest, in the concerns.
MOT: Would you say it's an ego boost for people, to get an invitation?
Richardson: Yes. I mean of course, there are those people who are reasonably self actualized in these environments, they've seen it all before, they've been around a long time, and it doesn't mean very much. But if you come into this group, if you're invited for the first time, maybe the second time, you're enormously conscious of where you are. And you want others to know where you are, it's one of those seductive lures of elite membership, you want to be in this group, so yes it's an enormous ego boost and one of the most interesting discoveries of the study we made here was that even at this level, people are still acutely aware of where they are in the pecking order.
MOT: Isn't that quite odd? For people who are very powerful?
Richardson: Yes, and it's not just on the basis of how big their companies are or what their ministerial role is or anything like that, it's not always that. It's oftentimes also at the personal level. Some people hold court in these environments, in ways that are very much more a function of their personal presence and personal abilities, networking abilities. And they have a reasonable amount of influence, influence that certainly goes beyond what might be considered their standing in formal terms.
MOT: What is the point of holding the meetings "off-the-record"?
Richardson: It oils the wheels. And you know, we can be cynical about the fact that our leaders need this closed room, we can be cynical about the fact that the media don't report it, of course we can ask lots of questions about that, but at the end of the day, if there weren't forums of this kind, we would be stuck with a brittle system of international relations with very sharp edges, that could find no basis for cooperation, there are times when there's simply no middle ground, and it's really incumbent on these groups and these networks to find paths where there might not ordinarily be any. So while we may find many interesting questions and we might be cynical about the motivations of certain individuals in these conferences, let's not also lose sight of the fact that these organizations serve a critical function in world affairs today, and basically their function is to make sure it works, not always brilliantly, but it does work, for the most part.
MOT: The United States and western Europe have been for the past 20-30 years very good places for the ultra-rich to live in. Do you see any connection to that with the Bilderberg group?
Richardson: Is the role of Bilderberg to represent the interests of these people? No. Is Bilderberg representing the interests of these people? Yes. But largely unconsciously so. It's belief in certain policies, the group's belief for instance in a free market, globalization, these processes have winners and losers. And the jury is still out, but certainly most reports on globalization,
economic globalization, indicate that there appear to be more losers than winners. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening, not just in developing countries but also in developed countries.
MOT: Women comprise 13% of participants of the four last meetings. What can you read into this?
Richardson: Women are under-represented of course, as they are in practically every other walk of professional life. It would be nice to think it's changing and in some forums it probably is. In establishments like Bilderberg, I'm sure there are those people who like to think it's gradually changing in the right direction. But the truth is it's an old boys' network and these old boys'
networks are more conducive to . . . boys.