Bottoms Up, Davos - RSA

Bottoms Up, Davos


  • Economics and Finance
  • Sustainability
  • Institutional reform

The World Economic Forum in Davos comes to a close this weekend. If 2018’s theme, ‘Creating a shared future in a fractured world’, was a call to arms, 2019’s ‘Globalisation 4.0’ seems more of a plea.

The WEF has long combined a fuzzy, Lennon-ist global vision with cold shiny neoliberalism, and this year is no different. Despite a more negative outlook from some leaders, the familiar tropes are all still there: we need better international institutions, more trade, less human rights abuses, greater climate protections, more unity. The media gets its share of absurd photo opportunities (leading the pack this year: Jair Bolsonaro having dinner with Tim Cook). politicians get to shake hands with washed-up mp3 merchants (see: Bono) and charities get a moment to decry the sheer injustice of it all (see: Oxfam’s latest report on the eye-watering state of wealth inequality).

This year there’s been a noted absence of those who once formed the lynchpin of the liberal-democratic world order. Trump has pulled out to save face during the ongoing government shutdown. Emmanuel Macron, who last year gave a rousing hour and a half speech at the forum on France’s openness, is paralysed by domestic problems. His deep entrenchment in the chalet class is the reason for much of the rioting that began at the end of last year. Theresa May did well to swerve what has now become a negative photo-call in the Swiss Alps, but still managed to send a quarter of her cabinet.

The forum is actually discussing some pretty interesting ideas this year. Many of these the RSA has been arguing in favour of for some time, such as data ethics, new approaches to the future of work, democratic reform, environmental protections and international regulation on artificial intelligence.

While none of these ideas are novel to Davos, that they’ve trickled up to perhaps the largest concentration of power in the world is surely a good thing. Even if these leaders fail to take proper action on these issues (which is likely) there’s something to be said for the creation of international norms. Advancements in denuclearisation, climate change and chemical weapons bans have needed acceptance as ideas before meaningful action has been taken. The WEF has identified many of the core problems facing humanity in the 21st century. It’s a shame that they’re the wrong people to address them.

Looking deeper at some of these ideas shows just how unlikely it is that the international business community will take action on them. Some of the ideas listed in this year’s outlook almost sound Marxist. It calls for:

‘A global dialogue on human capital to revisit the notion of work… moving from a consumption and materialistic fixation to a more idealistic, humanistic focus.’

Does ‘Globalisation 4.0’ mean a sea-change in workers’ rights? The CEOs of Huawei and Google acting together to rally against consumerism would come as some surprise. Anand Giridharadas (who recently spoke at the RSA) has argued real change won’t happen until the chalet class accept that they will have to make large and almost definitely financial sacrifices, something which doesn’t feature in the WEF’s manifesto. While Davos-ian doublespeak has been covered over and over and over, in the past it has at least been backed by political and economic clout. Last year Swedish academics Christina Garsten and Adrienne Sörbom released Discrete Power, demonstrating the profound influence of Davos on international markets. Should the forum’s soft power continue to bottom-out this may soon no longer be the case.

If Davos’ best days are behind it, what comes next? The World Social Forum, first held in 2001 in Porto Alegre, is yet to gain anything like the same level of media attention. Perhaps the Great Conference itself is over, a hangover from the Versailles’ and Yaltas of the 20th century. The optimist hopes that this will beckon a new era of radical information sharing, but the backroom deals of the past can now just as well take place via more encrypted channels.

A Davos in decline may be a good way to round-out the 2010s. Recent political transformations - from the Arab Spring to Western populism - didn’t begin in a ski resort in the Swiss Alps. No-one understands this better than walking, talking man (and US Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo.

‘New winds are blowing across the world’ he said in a remote address to the forum on Tuesday. ‘The central question is this: Do they signal fair weather, or foreshadow a storm?’

Will Grimond is part of the Media and Communications team at the RSA. A special thank you to Adanna Shallowe for her help with this blog.

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