Business cards. Check. Contacts book. Check. Stylish ski jacket. Check. If it is mid-January, the global elite, and certainly anyone who aspires to membership of that slightly nebulous group, will be packing their bags and flying, preferably by private jet, to the chic Swiss ski resort of Davos. Over the course of a few days, they will sort out the world’s problems, between munching canapés, and bagging some lucrative contracts for their bank.
If globalisation has a spiritual headquarters, it is the World Economic Forum, to give it its full name. When the political scientist Samuel Huntingdon coined the term ‘Davos Man’, he turned it into a short-hand for the globe-trotting elite that moves seamlessly from business, to policy work, to academia and consultancy. They have, he argued, ‘little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations’.
With its mix of tycoons, political leaders and celebrities, Davos has been a great commercial success, turning policy-wonkery into a money-spinner. But perhaps it has now turned into a liability? After all, if anything epitomises the out of touch elite that was over thrown by Brexit and Trump it was surely the annual gathering at the resort. What’s the problem? In fact, there are three of them.
First, the Davos elite has an over-riding belief in supra-national agencies. At its seminars and discussion groups, there is no problem so serious that can’t be fixed by handing more power to the EU, the IMF, the United Nations, or some other acronym, preferably working alongside some very big multi-national companies. But what Brexit and Trump have demonstrated is that people want national solutions. They might be right or wrong about that – but it is increasingly ridiculous to ignore it.
Next, the Davos crowd has an obsession with high-powered virtue-signalling – the fact that Bono usually turns up as the star attraction, often followed by Angelina Jolie, sort of gives the game away. Every year, the WEF comes up with a more and more pious slogan to sum up its work. This year it is about ‘responsive leadership’. Last year, it was ‘mastering the fourth industrial revolution’. Often they are just amazingly smug and irrelevant. In 2008, for example, as the global financial system fell apart, Davos’s theme was ‘the power of collaborative innovation’, whatever the heck that might be. Morally superior lectures from people who have a lot more money than they do was another factor that powered Brexit and Trump.
Finally, the Forum has a lofty disdain for democracy. At Davos, agendas are set by a small group of technocrats , with very little regard for what ordinary people are thinking. Central bankers, EU officials, non-governmental bodies, investment banks and multi-national corporations are its most natural constituency. Very few of the people who gather at Davos have ever been elected by anyone. But the Brexit and Trump voters were fed up with having their lives organised by people they didn’t vote for.
In fact, the best thing that Davos Man or Woman could do this year would be to hang up their snow boots – and call the whole thing off. It would be the one thing the ‘global elite’ could do to show that they ‘get’ how much things have changed in the past year, and how out of touch they have allowed themselves to become. If ever there was a time for tone-deaf plutocrats to keep a low profile, it is probably January 2017 – the trouble is, they are probably too busy thinking about ‘responsive leadership’ or ‘collaborative innovation’ to realise that.