book cover for Wall Street's Think Tank

Wall Street’s Think Tank shows that the Council on Foreign Relations is a pivotal institution for the US ruling class, finds Dominic Alexander


Laurence H. Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics, 1976-2014 (Monthly Review Press, 2015), 352pp.

The thoughts of the ruling class are ruling thoughts, to paraphrase Marx.[1] This is because the dominant mode of production sets a framework whereby the logic of economy and society creates an appearance of reality that is in conformity with the interests of the ruling class. That is to say, what suits the ruling class appears to be common sense. Yet, at the same time, class societies produce severe contradictions, so that people in general have experiences which produce alternative and critical views of the prevalent social reality. Opposition to the ruling class and its systems of exploitation therefore also occurs naturally. As social consciousness is contradictory in this way, resistance and revolution is a possibility.

This is why the ruling class can never be passive, and simply expect the existing structure of society to reproduce smoothly the conditions for its existence. The capitalist class must organise to promote its vision of economy and society, and to maintain its dominant position. It is the argument of Laurence Shoup in Wall Street’s Think Tank that the American institution known as The Council on Foreign Relations is not just another right-wing institute, but is a key organisation for the co-ordination of the capitalist ruling class, particularly in the US, but also, to a significant degree, internationally. Through the CFR, whole networks of the ruling class are knit together, and come to common agreement about the policies and programmes that will sustain capitalism in the US and the world:

‘The Council’s activities are thus a key way that the ideological hegemony of the capitalist class is established and maintained, while developing and implementing the policies that make this class a ruling class, a class for itself’ (p.130).

That last phrase is a crucial one: class is something that is not merely a passive, objective structure. It is the creation of the conscious activity of members of that class, who form common bonds and ideological understandings. This solidifies a group of people who share the same economic position into a self-conscious class capable of political action. Socialists are accustomed to discussing these issues in relation to the working class and the task of developing class consciousness, so that the proletariat becomes indeed a ‘class for itself’. It should not, however, be forgotten, that the ruling class also needs to maintain its own consciousness and coherence in order to perpetuate its hegemony over society.

Shoup is convincing that the CFR is more than simply a well-connected establishment think tank, although at base, that is exactly what it is. It produces innumerable policy papers and reports; holds conferences and meetings; has a large number of affiliated academics, as well as many in-house ‘scholars’. These employees staff dedicated policy working-groups on particular issues, for example on systems of health care, or solutions to climate change, in which the recommendations are invariably ‘market-based’. Alongside the professional intellectuals, there are all the CFR leaders and members ‘who pass through the revolving door of the federal government, to high positions of authority, no matter who is elected’ (p.9).

The CFR originated in 1921 with the merger of two organisations focused on international issues of business and commerce, with connections to the US government, Wall Street, and to a British sister organisation, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, commonly referred to as Chatham House (p.13). By 2015, the organisation had over 5,000 individual members, with 170 corporations affiliated as corporate members, together with ‘a staff of over 330, supported by an annual budget of about $60 million and assets of almost $492 million’ (p.11).

While the CFR has a long history, the focus of this book is its role in the formulation and propagation of neoliberalism as the dominant ideological prescription for governments globally since the 1970s. A highly prominent figure within the CFR, David Rockefeller, who was chairman between 1970 and 1985 (and the single largest financial contributor of the organisation’s entire history), was an early enthusiast for Friedrich von Hayek’s free market dogmas at the heart of neoliberal economics (p.32).

Shoup details the CFR connections to the US government policy towards Chile, the Pinochet coup and the world’s first experiment in neoliberal economics which took place there (pp.168-70). At the same time the CFR was developing its ‘1980s project’, focused on the promotion of free-trade policies. Among the eventual results of CFR planning and prescriptions was the creation of the World Trade Organisation, itself a central driver of the neoliberal project (p.171). Currently, the CFR’s fingerprints are all over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which is essentially a ratchet for privatisation, as it aims ‘to remove trade and regulatory barriers’ and to create ‘the biggest free trade zone the world has ever known’ (p.243). This is what the CFR stands for; pro-corporate economic and social policy. Indeed, one current senior CFR member decries the ‘nostalgic Fordists’ who still believe there should be a Welfare State (p.194).

It could be objected, however, that the CFR appears simply to be a particularly successful right-wing think tank, whose prescriptions have been so pervasive because they have the support of major corporations and the politicians that serve them. In one sense this is quite true, but that would be to overlook the role the CFR has played in creating the neoliberal orthodoxy in elite opinion. Its power and influence lie in its very role as a network bringing together diverse members of the ruling class, and the professionals that serve it, in order to create a policy consensus.

When Shoup refers to the ruling class, he is being very specific; ‘The capitalist class of the United States is defined here as people and families with financial or productive assets of at least $10 million, or a position as a top officer or director of a Fortune 500 corporation, or as a principal of a major law firm’ (p.27). Beyond that inner circle, there are rings of elite professionals who serve the capitalist class, and are rewarded to such a high degree that many can hope to join it.

One way of thinking about the role of the CFR would in fact to see it as an activist organisation for that capitalist class. Relatively recently, it has developed a ‘national programme’ which aimed at ‘building membership and programmes in key cities’ beyond its New York-Washington heartland (p.64). It has always been concerned to spread its ideas and policies among elite Americans, but it has also clearly functioned as a sort of marker of status in itself. Individual membership dues are very expensive, and members must be invited or sponsored to join, but the suspicion must be that being part of the networks of the CFR are highly productive of career advancing opportunities. Nonetheless, the central function of the organisation is clearly to mobilise consensus among the elite.

A significant part of Wall Street’s Think Tank is taken up with detailing the leading individual membership and key corporate affiliates. The roll call is impressive, including Presidents such as George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton (oddly Hilary Clinton isn’t a member, but her daughter, Chelsea, is, pp.96-98). Neither George W. Bush nor Obama were members of the CFR, but like all Presidential administrations for some time, their cabinets included an impressive proportion of CFR members at high levels (pp.97-9).

The list of ‘premium’ corporate members is equally impressive, including Coca-Cola, IBM, General Electric, Goldman Sachs, and many other familiar names. Of the top ten leading CFR members, all but one partial exception can be defined comfortably as genuine members of the capitalist class (not simply the professional penumbra), and specifically of the Wall Street finance elite (p.45). Tellingly, of the fourteen members of the CIA’s External Advisory Board, which was set up in 2009, ten were CFR members (p.100). Sections of the book do read as a kind of encyclopaedia of US business and political institutions.

The danger with this sort of project, listing the connections of elite individuals and institutions, is that it can appear on the one hand to be an unremarkable detailing of what we know exists; networks of power and influence. Yet documenting their existence is important and revealing in the details. On the other hand, the approach can be accused of conspiratorial thinking; the CFR defence would surely be that it is nothing but a locus for discussion of economic and political strategies for the benefit of the American nation, and that, of course, there is much difference of opinion between members. Shoup deftly avoids both traps, not least by showing how the institution has worked historically. It is neither presented as monolithic, nor allowed to excuse itself as some neutral space for technocrats to get on with their innocent business of managing human kind.

The occasional cracks in the edifice of the CFR come at instructive historical moments; one in the wake of dissent against the Vietnam War, and another in the aftermath of the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. Both these examples are important in showing that the ruling class is not impervious to pressure from without; dissent and protest can make it difficult for the ruling class to maintain cohesion. CFR members pushed for US intervention in Vietnam in the first place, but as the war went badly, the advice swung towards advocating a negotiated peace (p.19). Later, it was a shock for the leaders of the CFR when one of its eight directors, Henry Kissenger, was defeated in an internal re-election poll, amidst an unusually large turn-out among members (pp.56-6). The leadership of the CFR reacted by protesting the indispensability of Kissenger, and then by changing the election rules. Nonetheless, this was surely a mark of what the right-wing rued for a long time as the ‘Vietnam syndrome’.

The CFR as a central locus for the manufacture of ruling class policy and ideological cohesion necessarily reflects wider uncertainties. Even so, it seems to have managed its involvement in George W. Bush’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq with more dexterity than the earlier Vietnam debacle. The mainstream of CFR opinion, and its leading opinion, certainly backed the invasion, and envisaged the country’s transformation into a neo-colony (pp.200-1, and 205). Indeed, the advocates of a new strategy for US dominance over the Persian Gulf region, the notorious Project for a New American Century, were not simply ideological outriders of the US elite; 63-64% of PNAC signatories were also members of the CFR. Even so, Shoup refers to PNAC as ‘far right’, as opposed to the ‘more mainstream imperialism of the CFR itself’ (p.204).

The fact that a distinction can be made in this area is certainly convenient for the ‘mainstream’ of the CFR, which has enabled it as a body to disassociate itself from the consequences of the invasion. Indeed, CFR members have written prominent books critical of those involved in the decision to go to war:

‘The first to appear was America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policyby Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay. The second was Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet by James Mann. All three authors were CFR members when the books came out, and Lindsay was also a Council vice president and the organization’s Directory of Studies. Their close connections with the Council raise the possibility that the historiography and interpretation of this decision had been decisively and deliberately shaped by the CFR community … Mann’s index and text mentions the Project for the New American Century, which had close ties to the Council, but the index does not include any references to the CFR’ (p.212).

There were war-sceptics in the CFR at the time of the invasion, but they were decidedly in the minority (pp.210-11). In its presentation of recent history therefore, it is possible to see why organisations like the CFR exist in the way that they do; they operate as open networks of power and influence, which can nonetheless avoid direct, and potentially blameworthy connection to actual deeds.

Shoup’s contention is that the Council is the most important of the organisations in the US which knit the ruling class together, and the case is a strong one. This does not mean that he sees the ruling class as being in any way monolithic, just as he avoids giving that impression of the CFR itself. The Koch brothers and the Cato Institute, in particular, are singled out as notable exceptions which lie beyond the limits of the core CFR programme; they represent a ‘libertarian’ position on the ‘far-right’ of the spectrum, opposed to the role of the strong state, which the CFR’s agenda is to preserve and maintain (pp.130, 191). Leaving aside that reactionary faction, Shoup points out how CFR intellectuals clearly outline the parameters through which the ruling class maintains its control over society:

‘the concept of “democracy” is limited to the right to choose which faction of the ruling capitalist class will rule for a specified time, before rank-and-file voters are allowed to choose a different faction of the same ruling capitalist class, all of whom follow similar economic and other policies favouring the wealthy’ (p.190).

The core of CFR opinion, unlike the Koch brothers and the ‘far right’ faction of the ruling class, favours a strong state. This does not make the CFR mainstream any more palatable, wedded as it is to an extreme austerity agenda. It envisages, among other measures, the privatisation of health care systems internationally (p.274), and the raising of the retirement age to seventy to eighty (p.12).

Perhaps precisely because the CFR has helped to create such a narrow policy consensus, the political divide between Republicans and Democrats has appeared to grow ever more rancorous, even as the difference between the two ruling-class factions have shrunk. In the light of the upsets to the US establishment in the recent primaries, it is striking that as early as 2013, the President of the CFR, Richard N. Haas, argued that the main political problem in the US was ‘gridlock and drift leading to a crisis that could be avoided by various measures to “strengthen the center”, even if a new political party of conservative Democrats, moderate Republicans, and Independents has to be formed’ (p.197). This is the ‘extreme centre’ that Tariq Ali has warned about, describing the dominance of neoliberal doctrine among mainstream politicians. This form of politics is now visibly unravelling across Europe and America alike, although it is far from dead, and is spawning dangerous new forces on the right, even while opening up the space for left challenges to the political orthodoxies of the last thirty or forty years.

As influential as an institution like the Council on Foreign Relations might be, its history demonstrates that the ruling class is potentially vulnerable to forces outside its control. These are exemplified particularly by anti-war movements from the Vietnam war to Iraq. Wall Street’s Think Tank demonstrates with some force the role the CFR plays, and has played, particularly in the neoliberal experiment dating from the 1970s, in organising the ruling class ideologically. The implications go further than the subject of the book itself. It is a demonstration, since the ruling class is so consciously organised, why the working class must develop its own strong organisations in order to fight back.


[1] Karl Marx, The German Ideology (Lawrence and Wishart, 1970), p.64; see the section, ‘Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas’.


Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).