July 18 was the first day of this year’s summer camp for the world’s business and political aristocracy and their invited guests. Between 2,000 and 3,000 men, mostly from the wealthiest global 1 percent, gather at Bohemian Grove, a bucolic 2,700-acre campground 70 miles north of San Francisco in California’s Sonoma County — to sit around the campfire and chew the fat, off-the-record — with former high-level government officials, corporate leaders and global financiers.
Speakers this year giving “Lakeside Chats” include past Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker Jr., former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, founder of AOL Steve Case and former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill.
The Bohemian Grove summer encampments have become one of the most famous private men’s retreats in the world. Club members and several hundred world-class guests gather annually in the last weeks of July to recreate what has been called “the greatest men’s party on earth.” Spanning three weekends, the event includes lectures, rituals, theater, camp parties, golf, swimming, skeet shooting, politics, sideline business meetings and feasts of food and alcohol.
One might imagine modern-day aristocrats like Henry Kissinger, the Koch brothers and Donald Rumsfeld amid a circle of friends sipping cognac and discussing how the “unqualified” masses cannot be trusted to carry out policy and how elites must set values that can be translated into “standards of authority.”
Private men’s clubs, like the San Francisco Bohemian Club, have historically represented institutionalized race, gender and class inequality. English gentlemen’s clubs emerged during Great Britain’s empire building period as an exclusive place free of troublesome women, under-classes, and non-whites. Copied in the United States, elite private men’s clubs served the same self-celebration purposes as their English counterparts.
The San Francisco Bohemian Club was formed in 1872 as a gathering place for newspaper reporters and men of the arts and literature. By the 1880s local businessmen joined the club in large numbers, quickly making business elites the dominant group. More than 2,500 men are members today. Most are from California, while several hundred originate from some 35 states and a dozen foreign countries. About one-fifth of the members are either directors of one or more of the Fortune 1000 companies, corporate CEOs, top governmental officials (current and former) and members of important policy councils and major foundations. The remaining members are mostly regional business and legal elites with a small mix of academics, military officers, artists, or medical doctors.
Foremost at the Bohemian Grove is an atmosphere of social interaction and networking. You can sit around a campfire with directors of PG&E or Bank of America. Surrounded by towering redwood trees, you can shoot skeet with the former secretaries of state and defense or enjoy a sing-along with a Council of Foreign Relations director or a Business Roundtable executive. All of this makes for ample time to develop long-lasting connections with powerful, influential men.
On the surface, the Bohemian Grove is a private place where global and regional elites meet for fun and enjoyment. Behind the scenes, however, the Bohemian Grove is an American version of building insider ties, consensual understandings, and lasting connections in the service of class solidarity. Ties reinforced at the Grove manifest themselves in global trade meetings, party politics, campaign financing and top-down corporatism.
This article originally appeared at counterpunch.org. Peter Phillips is a professor of sociology at Sonoma State University and president of Media Freedom Foundation/Project Censored. He wrote his dissertation on the Bohemian Club in 1994.