The Forum of Young Global Leaders and overlapping fields of power

Julia Bethwaite
Doctoral Researcher in International Relations and Academic Coordinator of the Master’s Degree Programme in Leadership for Change, Faculty of Management and Business, Tampere University, Finland | @JuliaBethwaite

Synopsis: The Forum of Young Global Leaders brings together leaders from different fields across the globe, including acting ministers of state. How does the YGL programme relate to the idea of national representative democracies?

Keywords: Fields of power, elites, transnational actors, Young Global Leaders

In 2020, Sanna Marin, the youngest prime minister in Finland’s history, and Annika Saarikko, deputy prime minister and minister of science and culture, became members of the exclusive Young Global Leaders (YGL) network, an organization closely connected to the World Economic Forum (WEF). At the time of their nomination as members of the YGL, both Marin and Saarikko were active members of the Finnish Parliament. This has prompted debate in Finland. To what extend can ministers belong to global networks that carry great lobbyist potential? Can membership in such an organization function as a potential channel of influence by forces beyond the Finnish field of power? How do national and transnational fields of power interact and to what effect?

The Forum of Young Global Leaders is a five-year programme that brings together leaders from different fields across the globe. The programme enables its members to develop new skills and provides them with privileged access to a network of elites. It is thus a concentration of cultural and social as well as symbolic capital that the network’s members have a chance to accumulate. The leaders enrich the network with their specific skillsets and accomplishments, enhancing it with symbolic capital. For example, the international reputation of Sanna Marin as the world’s youngest prime minister arguably makes her appealing to the YGL programme.

As stated publicly, the programme is aligned with the mission of the World Economic Forum and promotes private-public partnerships in addressing global public issues. This can contradict the independent, apolitical nature of the organization, which is why it has been debated whether ministers should be allowed to join and participate in such programmes. The YGL candidates, ranging from accomplished political and business actors to representatives of academia and the arts, must be younger than 38 years old. The nominated candidates are shortlisted for further review by the World Economic Forum and thereafter are reviewed by the selection committee and the Young Global Leaders Advisory Group. The fact that the new members of the organization are being selected by other leaders raises questions about the transparency of the nomination process and emphasizes its hegemonic nature of curating a new global elite by the current elite.

As I argue in my PhD research analysing art institutions and their relation to national and transnational fields of power, becoming an actor on a transnational field of power offers opportunities of influence of different kind. The actors have a chance to influence others – and to become influenced themselves. Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptualization of a field of power can help to make sense of power dynamics that take shape on national and transnational fields of power. On the national field of power, dominant groups struggle for controlling the state and for possessing statist capital and symbolic power. The transnational or global field of power is closely connected to national fields, including the national field of power, and thus its actors are not fully detached from their national fields. Moreover, a global field of power can affect national fields, and therefore position-takings on a global field of power can shape practices within nation-states. Acting on a global field of power, national political actors become vulnerable to attempts of influence from outside their national fields.

membership in an organization like YGL does not deterministically imply that the actors will obey its values.

However, acting within a particular field does not inevitably imply that actors fully agree with the values that the respective field represents. While actors are expected to play according to the field’s logic, there is also an opportunity of change. The actors can try to affect the field’s organizing principles from within, promoting their own outlooks on matters. As actors carry out their social strategies according to their vision and their memberships on other fields, it highlights the actors’ responsibility and relative freedom in their position-takings. Therefore, membership in an organization like YGL does not deterministically imply that the actors will obey its values. To make better sense of the actors’ tactics, it is worth zooming in on membership in other social fields that they possess. The social fields are relational, and accumulating capital on one field can promote the actor’s position on another field. Thus, the actors act while taking into consideration the logic of other fields they also belong to.

In my doctoral dissertation, I analyze art institutions and their relation to national and transnational fields of power. I examine how fields of power interact across national borders and how both state actors and non-state actors utilize art institutions for position-takings on multiple social fields, including the fields of power within and beyond the national realm. Art institutions such as art biennials and museums can act as “hegemonic machines” and producers of the world, securing state power as well as views of the ruling elites and other dominant groups in the society. They also have the potential to dispute and offer alternatives to the status quo.

The power of art institutions lurks in their capability of bringing different social fields together. The fields interact on their heteronomous poles, which creates dynamic, relational spaces where capital conversion takes place as the actors apply different field tactics to achieve their agendas on other fields. The fields of power are central in this interplay, as eventually elites are struggling for the dominant principles of vision and division. The actors do not necessarily limit their agencies solely within the separated containers of nation states, but the effects they initiate can radiate further. Just as in the case of the YGL network, national and transnational fields of power overlap and interact, which creates fruitful opportunities for the fields’ actors and illustrates the border-crossing relationality of the social world.

Photo by Lanju Fotografie on Unsplash

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