A last stand for the Davos ‘gods’?

STWR
25 January 2016

After yet another Elysian gathering of corporate executives, politicians and celebrities in the Swiss mountains, the Davos elite appear more disconnected from the socio-economic realities facing humanity than ever before, and increasingly deluded about the role they can play in creating a sustainable future.

Although the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) mission statement claims that it is “committed to improving the state of the world”, it’s clear that the influence the ‘Davos class’ has exerted over global policy decisions has been overwhelmingly detrimental – especially over the past decade as mounting financial, environmental and social crises have converged to create a highly precarious world situation. 

For a number of years in the run-up to the annual event, Oxfam has released widely-reported research with hard-hitting statistics that highlight the obscene levels of inequality that many of those attending Davos are both responsible for and benefit from. Predictably, the extreme concentration of wealth has reached a new high: a single coachload of 62 billionaires now own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population – a number that has steadily fallen from 388 billionaires in 2010. Earlier than previously predicted, the richest 1% (which include many delegates at Davos) own as much wealth as the rest of the world combined, while the financial value of the remaining 99% has fallen by a trillion dollars since 2010 – a staggering drop of 41%.

Despite the WEF’s questionable commitment to improving the state of the world (not to mention last year’s contrived motto of ‘sharing and caring’), the issue of inequality was noticeably pushed down the agenda at this year’s gathering, even as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen apace. Instead, the official theme at Davos 2016 was “mastering the fourth industrial revolution”, with its promise of abundant new business opportunities and robotic automation that is more likely to further entrench corporate power than address global inequalities.   

A survey conducted by PricewaterhousCoopers (PwC) especially for this year’s Alpine retreat reveals that climate change is also of relatively minor concern for global business leaders, even though 2015 was officially the hottest year on record and saw a spate of extreme weather events around the world. In a clear indication of the gulf that exists between corporate priorities and pressing ecological and social imperatives, the primary concern among the 1,400 CEOs interviewed by PwC was the impact of excessive government regulation – despite the widely accepted need for more effective government intervention in order to safeguard the environment and prevent further financial crises.

Subverting democracy

Nothing illustrates the entrenched neoliberal mind-set of business gurus and policymakers at Davos more clearly than their obsession with deregulation and ‘techno-fixes’ in the face of a global crisis that ultimately necessitates tighter controls on corporate activity, alongside a far-reaching moral rather than technological revolution. But the grand designs of the corporate elite don’t end there: a new and completely undemocratic model of global governance is being furtively established by the Davos class in a bid to clear away the ‘red-tape’ of public oversight.

As exposed in the Transnational Institute's State of Power 2016 report, the WEF’s Global Redesign Initiative seeks to advance a purely corporate vision of governance in which decision-making processes between elected governments are marginalised in favour of those made by unaccountable stakeholders, such as transnational corporations and influential philanthropists – regardless of the impact this would have on democracy.

Drawing on the report, Nick Buxton writes: “There is considerable evidence that past WEFs have stimulated free trade agreements such as NAFTA [and] helped rein in regulation of Wall Street in the aftermath of the financial crisis”. He goes on to warn us not to be complacent about the significance and impact of exclusive meetings of elites such as those that take place each year in the Swiss Alps, as “we are increasingly entering a world where gatherings such as Davos are not laughable billionaire playgrounds, but rather the future of global governance. It is nothing less than a silent global coup d’etat”.

Nonetheless, the corporate strategy of undermining democracy and maximising income (for the few) seems increasingly unsustainable in light of the escalating social unrest and environmental degradation that this approach propagates. It’s becoming increasingly clear to a broad swath of progressives and activists that precious little time remains to dramatically reform the way we organise society so that governments, economic systems and businesses are primarily geared towards securing basic human needs and safeguarding Planet Earth.

In the end, the covert political deals fostered at exclusive conferences such as the WEF could amount to little more than a last stand by the Davos ‘gods’ to shore-up their political influence and maximise their earning potential during an uncertain period of economic turmoil and political instability. Whether their strategy succeeds largely depends on how effectively concerned citizens mobilise to confront an unsustainable, unjust and increasingly undemocratic status quo in the months ahead.

Those attending Davos should take note: millions of people are already demanding a fairer sharing of wealth and democratic power in countries across the world, and there is every indication that this trend is on an upward trajectory. The possibility of finally mounting an effective challenge to the power and influence of a dwindling minority of disconnected elites has never been more within our reach. 

Image credit: Ash Carter, Flickr creative commons