Supercitizens and Semistates

The global elites that really run the world.

The world is run today by what I call supercitizens -- super-empowered global elites that straddle borders, move markets, and make or break politicians. What makes a supercitizen different from you and me? With apologies to Mitt Romney, they're not actually people; they're entities designed much like comic book superheroes to have remarkable powers. To begin with, they're immortal (having the ability to survive the demise of their owners was one reason companies were first created). They operate globally, their scant national ties affording them great flexibility, mobility, and leverage. And of course, they're made super by virtue of their size: Their resources and influence vastly outstrip those of individual citizens and often entire countries.

In other words, the world's corporate behemoths really do enjoy powers greater than all but the biggest countries. There are plenty of critics who love to poke holes in flawed comparisons such as those between national GDPs and corporate annual sales, but no matter: There's a wealth of evidence to show just how vast their reach is. Here are just a few examples.


How the top companies on Forbes magazine's Global 2000 list stack up against some of the world's countries.

JPMorgan Chase
» $2.3 trillion: assets of JPMorgan Chase
» $812 billion: reserves of foreign exchange and gold held by the European Union


» Has around 7,500 offices in 87 countries and territories across Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America, more than the number of Austrian embassies (83).
» Has 300,000 employees around the world, more than Germany's number of active military troops (250,000).


General Electric
» Spent $26 million lobbying the U.S. government in 2011, more than Anguilla's budget expenditures ($23 million).

» Has 287,000 employees, more than Croatia's number of government employees (278,000).


» Produces 2.4 million barrels a day of crude oil and natural gas liquids, more than the 2.2 million barrels produced in the European Union.


Royal Dutch Shell
» Controls 49 billion cubic feet of worldwide natural gas reserves, more than the combined state-owned reserves of Oman and Dubai (totaling 34 billion cubic feet).

» Emits 85 million metric tons of CO2 each year, more than Chile (73 million).


» $321 billion: the market capitalization of PetroChina, more than the GDPs of all but 40 countries
» $21.2 billion: PetroChina's 2011 profits, more than Belarus's budget expenditures ($20 billion)



Industrial and Commercial Bank of China
» Has $1.7 trillion in assets, more than the foreign exchange reserves of any country except China.

» Made profits of $18.8 billion in 2011, more than Syria's budget expenditures ($18.3 billion).


Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway
» Has annual sales of $136 billion, bigger than Hungary's GDP ($129 billion).

» Made profits of $13 billion in 2011, more than Panama's budget expenditures ($8.7 billion).


» Produces 2 million barrels of crude oil per day, more than Angola (1.9 million).

» Emits 63 million metric tons of CO2 each year, more than Finland (57 million).


» Manages the accounts of 200 million customers, more than the populations of all but five countries (China, India, the United States, Indonesia, and Brazil).

» Does business in more than 140 countries, more than Italy has embassies (123).


BNP Paribas


» Has $2.7 trillion in assets, more than France's foreign exchange reserves ($172 billion).

» Made profits of $10.5 billion in 2011, more than Iceland's budget expenditures ($6.9 billion).


Wells Fargo

» Employs 272,000 people, more than the populations of New Caledonia (256,000), Vanuatu (225,000), or Samoa (193,000).

» Made profits of $12.4 billion in 2011, more than Yemen's budget expenditures ($9 billion).


Banco Santander
» Had sales of $110 billion in 2011, more than Iran's budget expenditures ($92 billion).

» Had profits of $12 billion in 2011, more than Costa Rica's budget expenditures ($8 billion).


» Spent $20 million lobbying the U.S. government in 2011, more than the annual military budgets of Laos ($19.7 million) or Moldova ($19 million).

» Made profits of $19.9 billion in 2011, more than Uruguay's budget expenditures ($14.7 billion).

» Has annual sales of $99 billion, more than Ethiopia's GDP ($95 billion).

» Emits 131 million metric tons of CO2 each year, more than the Czech Republic (117 million).

The List

The Things They Carried:
The Israeli Settler

A peek inside the bag Knesset member Michael Ben-Ari schleps to work each day in Jerusalem.

Michael Ben-Ari doesn't look like someone on the front lines, but he is -- in more ways than one. The far-right Israeli member of the Knesset was denied a visa to the United States in February because he was deemed to be a member of a terrorist organization -- likely Kach, a banned political party that calls for the expulsion of Arabs from the biblical lands of Israel. The incident caused a diplomatic uproar, as Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin wrote a letter to U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro condemning the U.S. action as "unacceptable."

A settler in the West Bank, Ben-Ari represents National Union, an alliance of national-religious parties that rejects the dismantling of the settlements and the creation of a Palestinian state. The 49-year-old former college lecturer lives in Karnei Shomron -- a settlement of 6,500 people on a hilltop 30 miles northeast of Tel Aviv -- with his wife and their eight children.

He is perhaps best known as a disciple of Meir Kahane, the American-Israeli ultranationalist rabbi who served four years in the Knesset until 1988, when Kach was banned for inciting racism. Two years later, an Arab gunman murdered Kahane in a New York hotel, but his creed lives on in Ben-Ari, the first avowed Kahanist to join the Knesset since the ban. Foreign Policy paid a visit to his settlement home to peek inside the black nylon bag he schleps to work each day in Jerusalem.


Clean shirt and tie: "My days are long -- luckily, I have a shower in the office." The label reads "Lord Fashion."





Leftovers: Persian-style rice with carrots, raisins, and cranberries. "My kids all eat Persian food," says Ben-Ari, who is of Iranian and Afghan descent. "This makes me feel connected to home."




iPhone: "I have a problem with all this modernization" -- Ben-Ari's home has no TV -- "but this thing won me over. One can't go to war carrying just a sword."




Tefillin, tallit: For morning prayers (tefellin are leather straps with boxes containing Torah scrolls; a tallit is a Jewish prayer shawl). "Before I interact with anyone else, I use these to connect to God."




Wallet: Cash, credit cards, driver's license, and a small siddur, or prayer book. On top is his Knesset ID -- "the key to my office," he says, "and, in a way, to every other door in the state of Israel."




Book: The Hebrew edition of Rabbi Meir Kahane: His Life and Thought -- Volume One: 1932-1975, by Kahane's wife, Libby. Ben-Ari recalls Kahane as a "wise, courageous, and committed" teacher. 






Pedometer: "Reminds me I need to walk at least 10,000 steps a day. Some days I use the Knesset gym, but only during the men-only hours."





Car key: All Knesset members are given vehicles -- Ben-Ari's is a seven-seat Mazda5, almost roomy enough for the entire family.



Photos by Marc Israel Sellem