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This Is Not a Power List

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Illustration by Peter Arkle  

Consider Gary Barnett and David Tepper, the reigning real-estate tycoon and hedge-fund manager, respectively. Before the bubble popped, both were hugely successful but largely unknown, holding no particular sway over their industries. But unlike archetypal Establishmentarians, who dislike coloring outside the lines and prefer to move in packs, Barnett and Tepper stepped to the next level by pursuing contrarian strategies in the midst of the crash: the former by continuing to build (and build opulently) when his rivals were running for cover, the latter by betting on the nation’s megabanks when many investors feared them insolvent or ripe for nationalization.

Or consider Dan Cantor, the executive director of the Working Families Party. Against the backdrop of the dramatic depletion of the city’s labor unions, the collapse of the old Democratic clubhouse structure, and the seventeen-year stretch since the last Democratic mayor, Cantor is angling aggressively to fill the resulting void in progressive politicsand in the process position the WFP as a potential kingmaker in the looming 2013 scramble to succeed Mayor Mike.

Or consider Nick Denton, the impresario behind that impudent, prurient, hypersuccessful clutch of websites known as Gawker Media. Ten years ago, Denton was living (miserably, mopingly) in San Francisco; he was a New York nobody. But then came the conjoined disruptions of technology and the secular decline in traditional media, and Denton was on his way to Manhattan and off to the races. Since then, he has exploited the chaos and opportunity as cannily and ruthlessly as any old-school mogul, but with a mixture of brashness and diffidence that sets him apartthe eminently clubbable Oxbridge import and Soho fixture with insidery, old-media pals, who nonetheless delights in the outsider’s sport of firing poison darts at the ancien régime.

And the list goes on and on. There’s Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, the downtown fashionistas who have challenged the traditional channels of tastemaking, merging cultism and curation to turn Opening Ceremony into a budding retail empire. There’s Amar’e Stoudemire, the incoming Knicks super-duper free agent, who before even throwing down his first thunderous dunk is showing how sheer shiny star power can turn around the vibe (however temporarily) at a doomstruck institution. There’s the team of NYU coding tyros behind the fledgling open-source social-networking site Diaspora*, whose quixotic attempt to topple Facebook is a testament to the raw (sometimes lunatic) idealism unleashed when barriers start to tumble. And then there’s Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada, the charter-school crusader, whom Bloomberg tells us in our power chain, here, is the most important person in the cityapart from MRB himself, that is.

The differences between this new cadre and the Establishments of the past are almost too numerous to count. One is that they live all over the place, not just in Manhattan: Barnett resides in Queens, Tepper in New Jersey, and so protean is Brooklyn that it has its own burgeoning Establishment (here). Another is that they are at least beginning to look like the metropolis they call home: women and non-Caucasians can actually be found in the pages that follow. And yet another is that they tend toward the iconoclastic and even anti-Establishmentarian; think of literary agent Andrew Wylie, on the face of it a consummate insider, boldly jabbing a sharp stick in the publishing world’s posterior with his paradigm-challenging e-book venture.

At this point, any expert in Establishment studies (an actual fieldyou can look it up) might argue that Establishments have always admitted outsiders that they deemed acceptable and sufficiently valuable. But that’s not what’s going on here. The vast swaths of people spread over these pages aren’t seeking admission to or storming the barricades of some higher or more prestigious orbit. Their ambitions are enormous, to be sure, but they are focused on the discrete arenas in which they operategiving rise to literally dozens of micro-Establishments, each with its own distinct customs, values, and pecking order.

This atomization, or Balkanization, of power and influence is a key feature of what is occurring today. After the publication of Fairlie’s seminal Spectator piece, one approving reader wrote to the magazine that the members of the British Establishment had no need to dine together in order to achieve their ends, because they were in telepathic as well as telephonic communication with one another. Nothing could be further from the case in the city now. Most of the people featured in these pages wouldn’t know one another from Adam. If the Old Establishment was a club and the New Establishment a network, New York’s 21st-century power structure looks more like an archipelago.

None of which is to argue that every vestige of the prior order has crumbled and been swept away. Bloomberg remains by far the most potent force in New York life. The Times still matters. And a handful of giants from the old days still hover over our civic life (here). But what’s striking is just how few such examples pop readily to mindand how inescapable the conclusion is that their influence is dramatically waning.

Were Fairlie still alive today, he would surely contend that these developments, whatever their virtues or demerits, have precious little to do with his original conception of what an Establishment was. Within a decade of his having injected the notion into common parlance, in fact, Fairlie had come to believe that it was past its sell-by date. In 1968, he wrote in The New Yorker that the promiscuous overuse of the term, and especially the propensity on the left to imbue it with conspiratorial overtones, made him wish that the language could be rid of it.

The wish was not the father to the act. As a piece of linguistic shorthand, the Establishment proved remarkably durable in the decades that followed, even as it was further robbed of any precise shape or meaning. But one imagines that Fairlie might actually be pleased by what’s taking place in New York right now: Even as his term maintains its vague currency, the city is in the process of killing off and burying the concept.

In our profile of him, Denton quips, with typical bumptiousness, If I am a cornerstone of the New Establishment, then there is no New Establishment worth talking about. Which is quite rightand, in a way, precisely the point.


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