Has there has ever been a “meeting that should have been an email” as glaring as Davos? Every year, the world’s champions of politics and finance ride carbon-spewing jets to the World Economic Forum in an opulent Swiss resort town filled with armed guards, where they pitch grimly about solving poverty and climate change. The attendance itself exposes all subsequent dialogue as hypocrisy. The event primarily serves as a rare rallying point for the political right and left, who both agree that everyone there should be in prison. If all these professional decision makers were really good at making decisions, they would replace the whole farce with an annual quick talk. “So here we go with global capitalism for another year. Agreed? Right. Cheerio.”
Davos and similar conclaves can only be understood as performances. They are the stage where the masters of the universe act out the dramatic narrative of their own lives. They are exercises in mutual self-affirmation: we are here and we matter. What good is a position of power without a rapt audience to listen to one’s pronouncements? Anyone can be rich, but only a select few can be influencers.
It is this heady attraction of performative influence that gives Davos its underlying absurdity. There is nothing particularly remarkable about officials who control the world meeting in private to make independent decisions; they do that all the time. That’s the job. The fatal flaw of the Davos crowd is that they are not content simply to be in control of everything. They want to be, too well, or at least to give the public the impression of being good. Thus, the typical CEO and presidential interviews and panels of economic and geopolitical predictions—the real stuff—are augmented with reams of other cultural and better content intended to convey the idea that at the center is this crowd of the world’s most jaded plutocrats . and cold-blooded status seekers lie a heart of gold.
Yes, they are here to dominate every aspect of your life, but they do so with the best interests of humanity in mind. Trust them! Would people who didn’t really care about morality sit through a panel titled “Profit and Purpose: Accelerating the Equity of Opportunity?” Checkmate, Marxists! The word “equity” is right there in the description!
The pastry-tasting crowds in Davos will also want their Swiss chocolate and eat it. And that is their fatal flaw. The greatest irony is that this event, which claims to identify and analyze global trends – and which for years now has worried about the rise of what is imprecisely called “populism” which threatens to consume the political order that has facilitated the postwar dominance of corporate capitalism—is itself one of the most perfect fuels on earth for populist anger. If Davo’s mind actually believed their own bullshit, they would shut down the conference immediately, knowing it is a threat to the values they supposedly believe in. It is no exaggeration to say that this monstrosity of abundance, unfolding amidst the ominously reduced snowpack of the Alps, is such a powerful symbol of everything wrong with the neoliberal era of the world that it will help create its own downfall.
It is a symbol of cloistered elites boldly indulging themselves while lecturing on the need for sustainability; it is a symbol of exclusivity cloaked in the language of democracy; it is a symbol of the irresponsible financiers and bureaucrats and intellectuals who went to the right schools and work for the right institutions and are therefore allowed to lock themselves in an impenetrable bubble, staring out in ignorance at a world whose problems they have never experienced, and prescribe a course of action that happens to perpetuate the dominance they have had for generations.
The utility of any actual valuable networking or communication or information sharing that takes place in the halls of Davos pales in comparison to the inferno of revulsion that its existence stirs among millions of angry, mistreated, excluded people around the world who will never put its legs inside its safety enclosure. If nothing else, the participants in Davos should shut it down out of sheer self-interest. They drive everyone crazy.
But it is in the peculiar nature of bubbles that those inside will never know what they do not know. Convincing Davos Man that his environment is toxic is as impossible as convincing Thomas Friedman talking to taxi drivers has not given him infallible insight into humanity. The problem is not so much that Davos exists – I can imagine a world where it served as a useful form of exile, keeping dangerous people encased in a comfortable simulacrum of reality away from the rest of us, The Matrix for Economic Thinkfluencers, a zoo where you could see a live camera by Larry Summers Anthony Scaramucci explains why higher unemployment would be good. No, the problem is that The Davos Matrix is put directly into the mainframe. The decisions these people make in their little atmosphere of illusion seep out into the real world, leaving the rest of us holding the bag as the wealth trickles further and further up, decade after decade.
The only useful thing that happens in Davos every year is the publication of Oxfams report on economic inequality, a document that always drives home exactly why Davos is a monstrosity. This year, Oxfam found that the richest 1% of the population had pocketed two-thirds of all the wealth created in the past two years. Many of the same people calmly digested this news in a nice warm cabin before heading off to make proclamations on a Davos panel. The rest of the world smolders. The rage of the lower classes. Some will become fascist and some will become socialist and some will just buy guns and bide their time. The Davos types will continue to talk about “global risk” without noticing that their own way of life is also at risk. There is much that all the leaders in Davos could learn from the wide, wide world. But there is nothing we can learn from them except who to blame.