One thing that has always bothered people about the World Economic Forum (WEF) is how aesthetically disagreeable it can be. Its style seems deliberately outre. Why does Klaus Schwab, the WEF’s impresario and MC, dress up like a cultic high priest? Why does Yuval Noah Harari – the organisation’s court philosopher – make slightly gleeful dismissals of the idea of human rights? “Take a human, cut him open, look inside. You find the blood, you find the heart, and the lungs and the kidneys – but you don’t find any rights.”
Why this dogged insistence on giving people the creeps? Fundamentally it’s an affectation. The showy amoralism of the WEF is in fact a personal branding exercise, one that arose in response to the first real stirrings against its worldview in the middle of the last decade.
These conflicts after 2016 have been cast in a certain way – not least by Davos itself. What ‘populism’ was objecting to, it was said, was economic and technological modernity. The world was being ironed flat by a ruthless process of economic optimisation that had begun in the 1980s, one in which all the old social institutions that might inhibit the free-flow of capital were to be swept away. What populism meant, then, was a romantic but essentially doomed revolt by those who had been squeezed out.
Armed with this idea, the WEF and its extended class of hangers-on have worked up a kind of equal and opposite anti-romanticism: amoral, bloodless and smirkingly technocratic. If populism represented the past, then the WEF represented the future. One aspect of this is an affected elitism: even the WEF’s website now makes a wry reference to its reputation as a clubhouse for ‘distant elites’.
More significantly, this personal branding allows the WEF and the orthodoxy it represents to take up the mantle of pragmatism, realism and modernity. Even the wobblier parts of this worldview, like mass migration or degrowth economics, could now be cast as simple historical inevitabilities, part of a general trend of bloodless rationalisation all over the world. These things were inexorable and therefore unanswerable; in this the WEF was only the bearer of bad news for the populists. Hence Schwab’s space-age getup.
Opponents of this worldview have been strangely willing to take Davos at its own conceit. Many are content to play the role cast for them: doomed rebels of the ‘heart’ against the unfeeling ‘head’.
And a conceit it is. Scratch a Davos attendee and you’ll find a gooey moralism and a generalised fear of any kind of material change.
For one, the WEF has never met a new technology that it likes. Davos is only beginning to recover from the rise of the internet, which decentralises information and so acts as a solvent to consensus. The average ‘left-behind’ white proletariat in Brandenburg, or Hénin-Beaumont, or West Bromwich has eagerly seized on the internet as a means of political communication; he or she wields it with much more savvy than, say, Angela Merkel. To people like the latter the internet is only sinister; what it puts at stake is not merely a particular consensus, but the very concept of truth itself. It’s always been the Davos line, then, that the internet must be bowdlerised in order to rebuild old solidarities.
Artificial Intelligence, too, is simply another subversive element to gut. Again, new technology is only something that’s allowed insofar as it shores up reigning social structures. What the WEF’s reaction to AI represents isn’t peevish regulationism but downright alarmism – one that draws heavily on the apocalyptic predictions of Eliezer Yudkowsky and the Effective Altruists. Sure enough, the topline recommendations from this year’s conference were for governments and the private sector to put “ethics and responsibility”, not commercial application, at the “forefront” of their AI policies. AI is something that really does threaten to dissolve the old certainties, economic and otherwise; but it’s Davos that’s leading the charge against it.
Think back also to one of the WEF’s more menacing slogans: “You’ll own nothing and be happy.” The accompanying essay imagines a future society in which all modern conveniences are shared. But this is just another kind of atavism. The clamour for shared canteens, group constitutionals and mandatory kumbayas isn’t new; it was the stock-in-trade of the romantic and agrarian communal experiments of the 19th century – like the barracks-cum-school Phalanstère of Charles Fourier. These kinds of social wheezes are, above all, a reaction against the anomie of modern life; the objective here is to rebuild solidarities that industrial capitalism has destroyed. Every vision of society offered by the WEF defaults to this same crude Fourierism: Ida Auken’s essay; Stakeholder Capitalism; The Great Reset (2020). It takes a lot of nerve, then, for Davos to accuse its populist opponents of harkening back to some sort of frumpy communitarianism.
And whatever Noah Harari may pretend, the Davos worldview is one that’s steeped in the language of universal human rights. Despite the conceit of bloodless rationalisation, during the pandemic Davos never questioned the idea that all human lives – no matter how many years were left to them – were equally valuable, and so must be protected with a Lockdown that collapsed global trade overnight. The old concerns about interconnected ‘just-in-time’ supply chains were dropped in an instant. Nor is mass migration ever subject to any kind of cold accounting at Davos. Third World immigration does not add to Western exchequers, but for the WEF that is beside the point. For Davos this isn’t about cheap labour (its proposals never include simple Gulf monarchy-style work permits) but the universal brotherhood of man; a maximisation of total global welfare for which Western taxpayers are obliged to foot the bill.
What Davos’ affected amoralism occludes, then, is that this worldview doesn’t represent an unfeeling new modernity, but rather an egalitarian moral project which is anti-modern in its assumptions. So when Davos plays the card of technocracy and thin-lipped realism, its opponents should not take it at its word. Because what we see from Davos isn’t “All that is solid melt[ing] into air”, but the search for a deadening new solidity.