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Absolute Power

Following the release of the ‘World’s Most Powerful People’, according to Forbes Magazine, Maeve Montague examines what the list tells us about the world

Forbes magazine is well known for publicising the wealth of the few, with its annual ‘Rich Lists’ having been in circulation since 1918. Since its attention is fixed firmly on the millionaires and billionaires of today – even those who have died are catered for in the ‘Top-Earning Dead Celebrities’ list – it comes as no surprise that the magazine’s motto is: ‘The Capitalist Tool’.

However, it has now turned its attention to formulating a rather more complex algorithm – that of power. Forbes no longer seems confined to the capitalist realm of its origins. Released of the shackles of its Cold War connotations, it seems ‘power’ has been reclaimed- a word of simple rivalry rather than a veil for the threat of war. Perhaps it is a symptom of globalisation that power can now be assigned on a global level, recognising the power in both capitalist and communist politics, and even the new domains of power beyond the political arena. The list of the ‘World’s Most Powerful People’, now in its third year, is attempting to redesign the meaning behind the word. But how can such a concept be mathematically defined?

Ranking is based on four factors: How many people a person has power over; the financial resources controlled by each candidate; in how many arenas the individual’s influence is felt; and finally, how actively the candidates wield their power. So when all that data is put together, what can we learn from it about the world we currently live in?

Quite a bit as it happens. Obama has reclaimed the top spot from China’s Hu Jintao to become the most powerful person in the world. Proof, perhaps, that despite his weak performance in the debt-ceiling debacle, along with his plummeting popularity at home, Obama’s influence is still felt keenly around the world. His placement at the top comes largely due to his successful involvement in Libya – which saw Gaddafi overthrown – and the fact that Bin Laden, often regarded as the face of terrorism in America, is no longer a threat after being killed during a US raid. Indeed, his recent success in ousting the former dictator may mark the return of the concept of his being the Leader of the Free World. The victory has also reasserted the strength of the US military, after struggling in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But considering that Hu Jintao is the leader of the world’s largest economy, and overseer of the largest population on earth, why is he only placed third? Is Forbes exercising bias in its placing of Obama at the top? In part, it is due to Hu’s relinquishment of the most important of his three titles – that of General Secretary of the Communist Party – next year. His presumed successor Xi Jinping – currently First Secretary – still makes it on to the list at number 69.  Though Xi’s promise to “smash…separatist activities” linked to the Dalai Lama during a visit to Tibet in July, may be a sign of a man who will wield his power with force. This will surely make for an interesting relationship with China’s media, who recently exposed a government cover-up of a train crash, in an unusual act of independence. Indeed it may test whether true power rests in politics or the media.

That power has traditionally been synonymous with politics is no secret, but Mark Zuckerberg’s entry at number 9 reveals that much of today’s power resides in social media. The founder of Facebook has been credited with achieving in seven years “what the CIA failed to do in sixty…knowing what 800 million – more than ten per cent of the world’s population – think, read and listen to, plus who they know, what they like and where they live”. And when it is put like that, it becomes clear that much of power rests in knowing private details about people. Facebook is undoubtedly a huge source of information for creating profiles of individuals. But equally, it gives much power to those who do not hold any traditional positions of authority. It provides a stage for the public to voice their opinions, and where those voices can be heard. Indeed, social networks have been credited with awakening youth activism, and are even considered a major factor in the recent Arab Spring.

Given our dependence on what is a finite source, a nation’s possession of oil inevitably bestows power on those in charge. This partly accounts for Vladimir Putin being in second place, particularly with the announcement that he is to run for the position of president next year. And with his push for a new Eurasian economic union of Russia, along with former Soviet republics, his power has the potential to increase further.

That we are in a time of economic uncertainty is obvious with the world’s most powerful woman, Angela Merkel, residing at number 4. Widely regarded as the de facto leader of the EU, and head of Europe’s largest economy, Merkel plays a key role in the structure of the Union. With the leader of the European Central Bank, and managing director of the International Monetary Fund also making it onto the list at 12 and 39 respectively, it is clear that economics plays a large role in today’s world. Indeed, the inclusion of India’s President and Prime Minister at number 11 and 19 respectively reveals the upcoming influence which their growing economy will have on the world.

Perhaps what Forbes’ list reveals most of all is the fact that the world, as we know it, is currently undergoing a major change. As traditional world leaders are in the midst of a recession, the concept of ‘power’ is going to continue to be redefined as new economies emerge. Just as America was considered the land of opportunity, the advent of the internet seems to herald the beginning of the modern entrepreneur. Social networking marks not only the continuation of globalisation, but also the possibility of power redistribution to the majority. With Bill Gates – a college drop-out and backer of what could be the first successful malaria vaccine – straddling both the power and billionaire list, it seems we really do have the ability to create our own power and influence. So who’s got the power? Increasingly – you.