Spirit of Davos

February 2 2010

Lance Knobel defends the WEF here and here, denying that Davos is painted “in the style of George Grosz or Otto Dix”. (Kirchner, perhaps?)

This was always a naïve way of looking at it, but the “rich man’s club” epithet still gets used. I can well understand people who stay away because they would rather be doing real work: the undeclared Steve Jobs objection.

In the old days, the WEF did seem to believe that the world was run by a very small number of people who, whether or not they were rich, would be able to solve its problems if they could only be brought together (become like the coteries which controlled the world in between-the-wars thrillers). The WEF was and still is based on a conspiracy theory.

Its magazine World Link (pilot 1987, demise 2002) was launched on the premise that there were, in fact, 33,333 of them, each of whom would receive it.

The WEF produced a booklet explaining who the 33,333 were. The heads of all 142 this, the chairmen and vice-chairmen of 1,400 that. Kings, queens, popes, secretaries-general. They all added up to the magical third of a lakh.

In the remarkable last ten years, what Lance calls “the endless stream of initiatives and agendas and councils” has suggested, built, a more complicated and realistic model of the world. At Davos and elsewhere, there are communities of young global leaders, social entrepreneurs, technology pioneers, religious leaders, and others. Even in 1983, we saw a far-left British trade unionist involved.

Davos is still “highly elitist, while at the same time scurrying for a comfortable middle ground on too many issues (particularly in the kinds of cultural figures it tends to celebrate)”. Good observation on the art. At least its most star-struck phase seems to be over.

He is questioning Felix Salmon’s contention “that [the idea that] Davos was institutionally responsible, at least in part, for the economic and financial catastrophe which befell the world in 2008” was worth examining. In other words, the idea that Davos does not make people ask questions or do things differently, but makes them smug. But who are they? A very few people saw what was coming (it was staring them in the face) and their representation at Davos was the same as anywhere else.

Lance quotes James Gibney’s question in one of The Atlantic’s blogs. “Here’s what’s potentially dangerous about the Forum’s worthy-sounding ventures on climate, global education, corruption, and health etc. For starters, they reflect the needs and goals of the Forum and its members, not the world. The sponsors of the Global Redesign Initiative (GRI), for example, are Qatar, Singapore, and Switzerland. Why them? Will the emerging grand master plan pay extra attention to the priorities of a sharia-bound absolute monarchy, a one-party state that bans chewing gum, and a minaret-bashing, tax-dodger-protecting bastion of chauvinism, or did those countries just happen to have some no-strings-attached money to burn? Schemes like the GRI are spawned and shaped outside the public view. The biggest job for the staff members running them is to keep the people paying the bills happy.” Gibney’s Orwell quotation is especially to the point.

Lance: “Whatever the Global Redesign Initiative concludes, I think it is a very good bet that it will have no impact whatsoever on anyone.”

“It’s very disturbing to read reports that the Google/China dispute was a forbidden topic this year. In my day I never encountered such taboos, and we genuinely tried to foster real debate.”

Well, taboos on the Middle East were masked to some extent in those years, between Oslo and the Second Intifada. Then, it was possible to be moved by sessions in which Shimon Peres, Elie Wiesel and Yasser Arafat would encounter each other. I remember Peres, a flashy phrasemaker, saying in one of them that what was required was nothing less than “a second genesis of human experience”. Some in the room could have made more practical suggestions.

In 2006, the Forum’s second outsourced publication (Global Agenda, annual, launch 2003, demise 2006) was closed down in the middle of Davos when it published a (crude) article suggesting a trade boycott of Israel. The magazine had committed a breach of manners, but nothing anti-semitic had been written.

“What I was trying to point out in my post the other day is that there is a strong group of Davos participants who spend a lot of time questioning premises, intentions and outcomes. They may not make the headlines, particularly of the US and British press, which understandably concentrates on homegrown stars. I think the Davos crowd that Felix decries don’t need help with the paving of the road to hell – they arrive in the Graubünden utterly convinced of their superiority and rightness. There are others who are far more questioning and skeptical.”

“There’s another reason why I hesitate to wholeheartedly endorse the more dramatic criticisms of Davos and so-called Davos Man. The biggest noise, particularly in the last decade, may have been made by the American financiers and the advocates for a capitalism red in tooth and claw. But the roots of Davos are very firmly in what some call Rhineland Capitalism.”

“That more socially conscious capitalism […] never really went away in Davos. It’s very easy to mock the Forum’s grandiose aspirations to ‘improve the state of the world’, but [its views are] sincerely held. […] It may be overstated, misguided, even delusive, but the Forum is a holdout against the more corrosive elements of that world.”

World karma isn’t made worse by incongruous congress at Davos. It’s smug to over-praise it, naïve to over-attack it.

“Part of Klaus Schwab’s brilliance in creating and developing the Forum over the years has been sustaining the illusion of [its] power and influence. I remember some newspaper article calling Klaus the world’s greatest concierge. People within the Forum bristled. But there’s no shame in being the world’s greatest concierge. The Forum is great at bringing business and political power together, with a leavening of intellectual power […].” But it has tried to be more than that and to drive processes.

I don’t know how well the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre works. It has a different view of the world, based on an idea not of peer-group dialogue, but of resistance by outsiders, since it knows that Davos will change nothing.

(The current Economist has a piece called “Why is economic liberalism so taboo in socially liberal Brazil?”)

A Lewis Namier-like historian or earnest thesis-writer could try to do a study of each and every participant and every initiative to determine what they contributed to what Davos discussion or WEF initiative and what the outcome was. (Impossible, and so was Namier’s attempt to do something approaching this for the eighteenth-century House of Commons.)

Grosz, The Capitalist

3 Responses to “Spirit of Davos”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Responsible Rhineland capitalism – Anglo-Saxon casino capitalism – Slavic gangster capitalism – Chinese managed capitalism.

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